AGRICULTURE and Water Resources Minister David Littleproud has announced an investigation into live exports shipments to the Middle East, after seeing video footage that “deeply disturbed” him, concerning animal welfare issues caused by heat stress.
It’s understood the video footage is also due to be used in an upcoming 60 Minutes program that would feature WA Agriculture Minister Alannah MacTiernan who has been a vocal critic of the live trade.
Mr Littleproud issued a statement today saying he’d watched the vision yesterday supplied to his office by Animals Australia that has long campaigned to have live exports banned.
“Last Thursday I received an incident report from the Department of Agriculture about a voyage involving live sheep to the Middle East in August 2017,” he said.
“I immediately requested an urgent briefing from the Department and wrote to industry asking what research they've undertaken about high heat mortalities.
“Animals Australia indicate the vision is of live shipments of sheep sent from Perth into parts of the Middle East during 2016 and 2017.
“I'm shocked and deeply disturbed by the vision.
“I thank Animals Australia for bringing this to my attention.”
Mr Littleproud also spoke to media today saying he’d asked his Department, as the live export trade’s regulator, for more information on the matter and for industry to provide an update on its research into heat stress, based on its funding for associated research.
He said the video footage supplied to him by Animals Australia was “very disturbing” and he’d watched two four minutes videos with one of the 2017 voyage and the another one in 2016.
“It is undertaken by them (Animals Australia) that that footage pertained to the shipment that was investigated in 2017 that is in question and other shipments,” he said.
“I’ve seen that footage and was absolutely shocked and gutted.
“We saw sheep that basically died from a heat event that were left and decayed that were unable to get to water and food on the ship and it disturbs me greatly that his has happened.
“This is the livelihoods of Australian farmers on that ship – that is their pride and joy and it’s just total bullshit that what I saw, is taking place.”
Mr Littleproud said he was advised Animals Australia would provide more information to his Department today and the government needed to ensure they worked through that information as the investigation continued.
“If improvements need to be made they’ll be made,” he said.
“I’ll be asking the hard questions of the Department around this because this is totally unacceptable, what I saw on that vision.
“This is total bullshit – you can’t put it any other way – this is disgusting.
“We need to get this right and there should be no fear, if you’re doing the right thing with this industry, you’ll be protected.
“(But) if you do the wrong thing and step outside the boundaries, you’re going to get nailed and so you should.
“I’m not making any presumptions – it’s important that the presumption of innocence be provided to these people until such time as the investigation is completed.
“We intend to take it very seriously.”
But Mr Littleproud said an export license suspension, or total loss of an export license, as well as criminal penalties, could be imposed.
He said an environment needed to be created where groups, whistleblowers and individuals were comfortable and confident in coming forward “so we can nail those who do the wrong thing”.
“As I've said many times since becoming Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources in December 2017, we need compliance with laws across all industries to give us integrity,” he said.
“This requires exporters, the industry and the regulator - the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources - to fulfil their full responsibilities.
“I will not be afraid to call out and take strong action against those who have not fulfilled their responsibilities, whether they be the exporter, the regulator or staff on ships.
“I support the farmers who rely on live export and the exporters who do the right thing.
“We need this trade for our farmers.
“Farmers care for their animals and they'll be angry and hurt when they see this footage.
“We need this trade to be conducted properly and sustainably for our farmers for whom the live trade provides a vital market, as well as for the animals themselves.”
Sources have said the 60 Minutes program could potentially be broadcast this weekend and would expose issues regarding the quality of ventilation used aboard shipments to the Middle East.
Animals Australia spokesperson Lisa Chalk said the minister’s announcement speaks to the “seriousness” of the situation and “strength” of the evidence provided to the government.
“Australian farmers and the community will be shocked by what they see and hear on 60 Minutes on Sunday night,” she said.
“Animals Australia is committed to working with the government to ensure laws are upheld and offending exporters are held to account.”
Industry responds saying sheep deaths “plainly unacceptable”
Managing Director of Emanuel Exporters Graham Daws and the Australian Livestock Exporters' Council (ALEC) issued a statement about the Department’s report that was released last week from its investigation into mortalities on the Awassi Express voyage last year.
It said Emanuel Exports loaded a consignment of 63,804 sheep and 50 cattle that was exported by sea from Fremantle on August 1 to Qatar, Kuwait and the UAE, with unloading completed on August 17, 19 and 24.
A mortality rate of 3.76 per cent – or 2400 sheep out of 63,804 - was recorded for the voyage which exceeded the reportable mortality level of 2pc as prescribed by the Australian Standards for the Export of Livestock (ASEL).
The majority of the mortalities were caused by heat stress and no cattle mortalities were recorded on the voyage.
The joint-statement said there was a discrepancy of 195 sheep on the final unload count in the UAE but a report recording 24,000 sheep unloaded whereas the shore count recorded by the Australian Accredited Veterinarian (AAV) was 23,805.
“The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) conducted an independent investigation into this reportable mortality and concluded that all livestock services on the ship were operating satisfactorily during the voyage,” they said.
“Actions taken on board the ship to mitigate the heat stress event commenced prior to the forecast severe weather conditions in the Gulf of Oman.
“Extra crew were rostered on to undertake additional housekeeping and to prioritise watering to hand watered troughs.
“Some excessively boggy pens and those in hotter areas were opened to allow sheep access to alleyways.
“Some pens were joined by closing of cross ship alleyways.
“When high heat and humidity started to affect sheep, individual animals identified as heat affected or bogged were removed into alleyways near ventilators.
“Livestock was further spread out across the vessel as more space became available following discharge at each port.
“These actions however, were insufficient to prevent the reportable mortality incident.”
The statement said the Department required Emanuel to comply with a heat stress management plan for their next consignment to the Middle East using the same vessel, for a consignment exported in September 2017.
“This document outlined risk mitigation strategies for all stages of export, including a 10pc reduction in stocking density, to that prescribed in ASEL,” they said.
“The voyage recorded a mortality rate 0.52pc; this is below the reportable level of 2pc.
“The department’s investigation found the sheep were prepared and transported in accordance with export and ASEL standards.
The Department is considering a revised heat risk management plan from Emanuel to address the risks associated with consignments exported to the Middle East during the hottest months – July/August, with those changes to be implemented in 2018.
ALEC CEO Simon Westaway said even if the circumstances can be explained, the sheep deaths were “plainly unacceptable”.
Mr Westaway said in 2017, 12,377 sheep died in transit out of a total 1.74 million head exported from Australia – recording a mortality rate of 0.71pc.
He said the range of livestock mortalities since 2010 had been between 0.6-0.9pc and was trending down, “but our industry is determined to achieve better outcomes”.
“The August 2017 voyage struck extreme heat and humidity at Doha, which was the first port of call due to the blacklisting of Qatar by other GCC countries at the time,” he said.
“Kuwait, typically the first discharge port, experiences a drier heat which presents fewer heat-stress risks for sheep when a vessel is carrying a full consignment.
“We’re committed to further reform and ongoing improvement in terms of animal welfare in our $250 million live sheep trade.
“We support the Federal Government’s current review of the Australian Standards for the Export of Livestock (ASEL) and we have also actively participated in AMSA’s review of livestock shipping.
“Exporters work with the Department to manage the recognised risks associated with exporting to the Arabian Gulf in the northern summer due to the seasonal heat and humidity, but more needs to be done.”
Mr Westaway said one of a number of measures adopted over the past six months to mitigate the unique risks encountered in August 2017 was negotiating for Kuwait to once again be the first port of call for Gulf shipments.
He said precautions including loading up to 15pc lighter of sheep volumes than ASEL requirements for northern summer shipments had also been formally agreed to by the exporter and DAWR.
“These steps are in addition to the industry’s long-standing climate control programs for shipping which statistics show has helped to further reduce mortalities and heat-related welfare risks,” he said.
“Welfare is our biggest investment and highest priority.
“Millions of dollars are invested each year by exporters and last year alone, our industry service provider LiveCorp invested $1.4m for welfare programs.”