"There are reported to be 219 survivors on these five vessels."
The MV Rabaul Queen sank in the early hours of Thursday morning after encountering what operator Star Ships described as bad weather.
Australia's Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) detected a distress beacon at about 7.25am local time (2025 GMT Wednesday) and directed ships in the area to the scene.
Four merchant ships were at the scene recovering survivors and an Australian search and rescue aircraft with life raft-dropping capabilities was also assisting, AMSA added.
"Further fixed-wing aviation search assets have also been tasked by AMSA, including an Australian Defence Force PC3 Orion aircraft and AMSA’s Darwin-based Dornier," the maritime agency said.
Star Ships said it lost contact with the MV Rabaul Queen at about 6am on Thursday (2000 GMT Wednesday) while travelling between Kimbe and Lae in the east of the Pacific nation.