Space allocated to sheep on live export ships to the Middle East will be increased by up to 39% and directors of live export companies who flout the new rules will face up to 10 years in prison under sweeping changes announced by the Turnbull government on Thursday.
But the reforms to address mass sheep mortalities caused by heat stress do not extend to banning trade to the Middle East from May to October, which was recommended by Australia’s peak veterinary body, and “encourage” but do not enforce improved ventilation on live sheep export ships.
Animal welfare groups, including the RSPCA, say the review has misunderstood the science and its 23 recommendations, all of which have been adopted by government, are not sufficient to avoid another catastrophic heat stress event.
The recommendations, which include placing independent observers on all live sheep and cattle ships, only apply to the live trade during the Middle Eastern summer, from May to October. The majority of reportable mortality events in the past decade, where more than 2% of sheep on board have died, have occurred on ships that left Australia in August.
Livestock vet Dr Michael McCarthy was tasked with reviewing the risk of heat stress to the $250m trade in April, after the agriculture minister and Nationals MP David Littleproud was shown whistleblower footage from a now notorious voyage of the live export ship Awassi Express on which 2,4000 sheep died.
The Awassi is part of a fleet stocked by the West Australian company Emanuel Express, which is the largest sheep exporter by volume. About nine days after the Awassi set sail on that voyage in 2017, the company was under fire for another mass mortality event caused by heat stress on the ship Al Messilah in July 2016, on which about 3,000 sheep died.
At a press conference in Sydney on Thursday, Littleproud said he was disgusted by the whistleblower footage but that implementing a ban on the summer trade would harm Australian sheep producers.
“The footage was disgraceful but what you don’t need to do is predicate your decisions on emotions and not facts,” he said. “This was one exporter, one incident … If you have other footage, bring them forward.
“If I have penalties and get the industry themselves to come on this journey, I will eradicate that, but what I’m doing is getting ahead of the curve. By putting independent observers on all boats, it will eradicate this type of behaviour going forward.”
The whistleblower footage from the Awassi Express is the first such footage ever smuggled off a live export ship.
Littleproud said the changes recommended in the McCarthy review included adopting an allometric heat stress model, which would base the space requirements for sheep on the point at which an animal begins to feel heat stress, rather than the point at which heat stress becomes fatal.
That will mean the individual heat allocation for sheep, currently about one-third of a square metre, will be increased by up to 39% depending on predicted weather conditions, the ventilation conditions on board the ship and the size of the sheep.
That is an overall reduction in stocking density of about 28%.
The new formula for calculating stocking density takes into account ventilation and airflow onboard the ship, meaning that boats with improved ventilation can carry more sheep. Littleproud said it would “encourage exporters to upgrade their boats”, but there are no firm requirements forcing an upgrade.
Based on the current live export fleet, McCarthy’s review suggested stocking density could be reduced on individual ships by up to 79%.
Littleproud said he would introduce changes to the Australian Meat and Industry Act to impose penalties of up to $4.2m on companies and $2.1m on directors who “seek to profit from breaking export rules around stocking densities and poor animal welfare practices.”
Directors could also face up to 10 years in prison.
Most of the changes will be in place from 1 July.
The RSPCA said the recommendations were “weak” and “not based on science or evidence”.
“These recommendations completely ignore the science and are not enough to reduce the risk of either consistent harm to animals or the catastrophic conditions we’ve seen previously,” the RSPCA’s chief science officer, Dr Bidda Jones, said.
“It’s frankly extraordinary that this review will allow May to October voyages to continue, taking winter-acclimatised animals into temperatures of more than 40 degrees, and humidity of up to 80%. There’s no stocking density limit that can protect sheep in those kinds of conditions. A single sheep standing on a deck will suffer and can die under those heat and humidity levels.”
Jones said it was unacceptable that the increased space allocation only applied during the Middle Eastern summer, and that a 28% increase in stocking density year-round was the “minimum required” to avoid dire animal welfare outcomes.
The Australian Veterinary Association, on whose calculations the heat stress formula is based, recommended a year-round increase in the space allocation of 39% for a 50kg sheep, and a greater increase in the summer months – assuming its first recommendation of banning the summer trade was not accepted.
Jones said Littleproud’s announcement was a betrayal of the trust placed in him by animal welfare organisations.
The Animals Australia founder, Lyn White, said the recommendations were “an appalling breach of faith with the Australian community.”
“This is a lily-livered government response designed to protect exporters, not animals,” White said.
The opposition agriculture spokesman, Joel Fitzgibbon, also criticised the review and said Labor would act to ban the summer trade “at the first opportunity,” and look to phasing out the live sheep trade long term.
There are two private member’s bills before parliament to ban live exports.
Source: The Guardian