Live Export: A Fifth Option

Image from whistleblower footage courtesy of Animals Australia
Image from whistleblower footage courtesy of Animals Australia

Published Sep 29, 2019 8:39 PM by The Maritime Executive

Australia's live export industry could damage the reputation of the nation, its government and all of its livestock production systems.

Australia's Department of Agriculture notes this in its latest call for input on how to manage the live sheep trade to the Middle East. The move is one of its many follow-ups after whistleblower footage was released in 2018 showing thousands of sheep dying of heat stress on the Awassi Express and other livestock carriers departing Australia. 

In the months after the whistleblower footage was released, an opinion poll showed that around three in four Australians want to end the live export trade. The poll, commissioned by the RSPCA, found almost seven out of 10 Australians in rural areas and country towns want to end live exports, and more people in rural and country towns than anywhere else (just under 95 percent) were concerned over the inadequacy of current welfare standards.  

A number of expert reviews were conducted as part of the government's response, sheep stocking densities were marginally reduced and observers were placed onboard. Some onboard observer reports have been made public after RSPCA undertook freedom of information action against the Department. Some others have been summarized by the department, and others are yet to be released.

The exporter at the center of the outcry made a public apology, and the industry committed to greater transparency. The industry also self-imposed a moratorium on sheep exports during the Australian winter - a peak time for heat-stress related mortality.

The potential for damage to reputation spread beyond livestock exporters to the Department of Agriculture itself which continues to be under review for how it is functioning as a regulator of the industry.

The actions of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) were also highlighted in the months that followed the release of the footage. AMSA inspected the Awassi Express 39 times in the five years before the whistleblower footage was aired. Shortly after, AMSA inspected the vessel again, and subsequently required work to be carried out on the vessel's ventilation system and an automatic system for providing water to the livestock to be installed. 

In 2017–18, Australia exported two million live sheep (A$239 million). In that year, live sheep exports contributed seven percent of the value of Australia’s sheep and sheep meat exports. Live sheep exports contribute around 0.5 percent of the value of Australia’s total agricultural exports.

Despite the risks to Australia's reputation, ending the live export trade is not an option that the Department of Agriculture will consider, although it notes that the industry could indeed loose its “social license” to operate and be shut down. The Department outlines four options and calls for more, indicating that any options considered would need to be financially viable for exporters: “The intended outcome of adopting one of these policy options, or a valid alternative, is to manage the risk of heat stress in live sheep exports and welfare outcomes on voyages while supporting a sustainable live sheep export trade.”

A key element of the Department's proposed options relates to the industry's heat stress modeling software. In early 2000, after a series of voyages with high levels of heat stress and mortality, the industry developed a predictive heat stress modeling software tool, HotStuff, to assist in risk management planning. The level of risk, as calculated by HotStuff, was set by industry in 2003 as a two percent risk of a five percent mortality event. The risk level is a three-part criterion. The first part is the number of animals affected (five percent). The second is the probability of the weather conditions that will affect five percent of animals (two percent probability). The third part of the criterion is the physical state of the five percent of animals in the two percent chance of extreme weather; in the current model, this state is death.

One of the government initiated reviews, undertaken after the whistleblower footage release, re-evaluated the heat stress model. This review called for a new approach within the model that recognizes heat stress rather than death as the third metric of concern.

The Department's four proposed management options are:

1) Three month prohibition and the industry continues to use the existing heat stress model or agreed animal welfare indicators.
2) A three and a half month prohibition and no need to use the heat stress model.
3) No prohibition but adopt a revised heat stress model with risk settings based on heat stress thresholds or agreed animal welfare indicators.
4) No prohibition and the industry continues to use the existing heat stress model.

The RSPCA, dissatisfied with the four proposed options, has already come up with Option 5 which it says is not a back-peddle on animal welfare like the four proposed. “The only viable option to protect the welfare of Australian live exported sheep while the trade continues is to prohibit the highest risk months of the year – as the Government has started to do this year – and introduce the revised heat stress risk assessment model, which the Government has already committed to doing on multiple occasions.”

The RSPCA has in the past called for an end to the trade, but in response to the options proposed has issued a warning to the Department. “The live sheep trade is under greater scrutiny than ever before, and over a year and a half since the notorious Awassi Express footage was exposed, that shows no signs of subsiding.

“For the community to have any confidence, the Government must show it is willing and able to effectively regulate this trade, and it must base its decisions on science and evidence – rather than trusting the live exporters that have consistently and recklessly proven they are unworthy of that trust.

“This is not the time for the Government to weaken existing standards, nor to shy away from the very moderate reforms that have been put in place in response to a litany of disastrous voyages.”

Comments and further proposed options can be submitted to the Department of Agriculture here