AGRICULTURE minister David Littleproud has announced a review into the powers and culture of the regulator, the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, after seeing footage from live export voyages to the Middle East.
Additionally, Mr Littleproud announced the establishment of a telephone number for whistle-blowers to anonymously provide information, and he also signalled an intention to work with the Labor Party to increase penalties for wrongdoers, including possible jail time.
This comes after animal rights peak body Animals Australia released footage and images of sheep and dying on five voyages to the Middle East in 2017.
The footage was acquired by a crewmember turned whistle-blower, and it shows sheep suffering severe heat stress; succumbing to heat stroke; sheep caked in faeces and urine; injured and sick animals; severely decomposed bodies left in pens with living sheep; and other mistreatment.
Lyn White of Animals Australia said the scale of neglect and the acceptance of suffering on the shipments was “staggering” and the disregard for the wellbeing of the animals was “ruthless”.
“Regulations require the sick and injured to be promptly treated, yet they cannot even be found amongst the mass of sheep in pens,” she said.
“It is heart-wrenching to see the dead, dying and living co-existing in a bog of their own faeces when they reach the Middle East.”
Minister Littleproud said, “Personally, I’d like to see company directors be held more personally accountable if they do the wrong thing, facing big fines and possible jail time.”
“I want to let the light shine in. No-one who is doing the right thing should be scared of transparency.”
Mr Littleproud thanked the whistle-blower who filmed the footage, and said a hotline for whistle-blowers to call anonymously was a logical step to increase transparency.
“I said I’d aim to create an environment where whistle-blowers are comfortable and confident stepping forward, and a hotline is a start. I’ll consult further with Animals Australia and the RSPCA, both of whom I’ve been in contact with, to help strengthen this,” he said.
“A review into the independent regulator is a good thing. We need to make sure the regulator has the right tools, training and culture to make sure exporters do the right thing. This requires prosecutions and heavy penalties where breaches occur.”
The Australian Livestock Exporters’ Council (ALEC) said the footage shows more needs to be done to reduce risks during voyages to the Persian Gulf by building on existing welfare practices.
ALEC CEO Simon Westaway said the regulations provide the framework for mitigating heat stress, managing sick sheep, ensuring access to food, water and ventilation, and the maintenance of dry and appropriately stocked pens.
“Not only are industry, government, producers and welfare groups already revisiting that framework, we now need to reinforce the independence of the reporting processes to ensure standards are met,” he said.
“Exporters have proven they are willing to embrace a science-based approach to reform, to improve welfare, accountability and alignment with community expectations. Farmers put their faith in us to sustain and grow the live sheep trade, which is worth $250 million annually, and we are determined that we will not let them down.”
Western Australia agriculture and food minister Alannah MacTiernan said conditions shown in the footage was “completely unacceptable”.
“Decent welfare standards on live export voyages are absolutely critical to continued public confidence in the livestock industries and live export,” she said.
“We have been very concerned about federal inaction, which is why we decided to use powers available to us under state laws to investigate this incident.”
Ms MacTiernan said she welcomed any action from Mr Littleproud on the issue.
“The Federal Government needs to seriously consider if and how basic animal welfare requirements can be met when taking sheep on voyages from the Western Australian winter to the height of Middle Eastern summer,” she said.
“We will also continue to look at how to encourage more onshore meat processing, to get more value out of our livestock and create more jobs in Western Australian abattoirs.”
Some of the images of the mistreatment of sheep were from an August 2017 voyage of the Awassi Express to the Middle East.
Emanuel Exports loaded a consignment of 63,804 sheep and 50 cattle at Fremantle on 1 August, with unloading completed on 17, 19 and 24 August at three Middle Eastern ports.
According to a DAWR report on the voyage, there was a mortality rate among the sheep of 3.76%, above the “reportable mortality level” of 2% prescribed by the Australian Standards for the Export of Livestock.
The DAWR report found that the majority of the deaths were caused by heat stress.
Emanuel exports managing director Graham Daws said high mortality incidents like that which occurred in August 2017 on the Awassi Express are “devastating”. He said the company had taken steps to address the issues arising from an “extensive” internal review of the voyage and DAWR’s findings.
“Australia’s livestock export industry remains accountable and transparent and Emanuel continues to work in a fully co-operative manner with the regulator,” he said.
“The viability of the live trade relies on the wellbeing of the animals in our care. When animal welfare is not upheld, we jeopardise the food security of our overseas customers, the future of a significant long-standing market for producers and the support of the community.”
The Awassi Express is currently berthed at Fremantle (as of midday 10 April) to take on animals for another voyage to the Middle East.
On Sunday, the Panama-flagged vessel was inspected by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority for a renewal of its Australian Certificate for the Carriage of Livestock.
A spokesperson from AMSA said the inspection raised some concerns about air flow over some pens and has required that a third-party air-flow verification report to prove compliance with air-flow standards before an Australian Certificate for the Carriage of Livestock can be issued.
“AMSA is aware the livestock carrier Awassi Express is relocating to a lay-up berth in the Port of Fremantle today in order for the vessel operator to conduct testing on its ventilation systems,” the spokesperson said.
“AMSA will not renew the ship’s Australian Certificate for the Carriage of Livestock unless it is satisfied the ship complies with Marine Order 43, including requirements for minimum air flow across all areas of the livestock pens.”
A statement from DAWR said it was taking “immediate” action by adding an independent Department veterinarian to “an upcoming voyage to the Middle East”.
The vet is to monitor the health and welfare of the animals on board, send back daily reports and images and will be able to issue directions on the vessel to ensure the welfare of the sheep.
Mr Littleproud said he was pleased that an independent observer paid by the regulator would be on board sending back daily reports and photographs.