Australia Backflips on Sheep Welfare Regulations

twin tiers

By The Maritime Executive 12-03-2019 02:02:43

Australia's Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Cities and Regional Development denies being approached by companies, organizations or individuals seeking exemptions to upcoming animal welfare regulations for twin-tier livestock carriers departing Australia. Yet, it is going to grant exemptions on a case by case basis anyway.

Twin-tier livestock carriers were to be banned from loading sheep at Australian ports from January 1. The deadline was set after public outcry over whistleblower footage showing thousands of sheep dying on heat stress on the Awassi Express (now the Anna Marra) was aired on 60 Minutes last year.

The change was implemented through an instrument under the Navigation Act 2012 called Marine Order 43 by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA). The order also includes ventilation requirements on all livestock carriers, single and twin-tier. 

The Department of Agriculture cannot grant exemptions to the regulations, but the Department of Infrastructure can, it says. A spokesperson for the Department of Infrastructure said: “Vessel operators applying for an exemption will need justify why they are unable to comply with legislated deck height and ventilation requirements and submit a plan to meet the Marine Order 43 requirements in the near future. As a condition of any exemption granted, exporters who use these vessels to export live sheep will need to have a management plan to support acceptable animal welfare outcomes approved by the Department of Agriculture.”

Asked if this means that exemptions to the ventilation requirements would be considered for single-tier vessels, the spokesperson said: “This is not Government policy. The Australian Government has decided that it will consider on a case-by-case basis temporary and limited exemptions from the requirements under Marine Order 43 for twin-tier vessels used to export live sheep.”

AMSA declined to comment on the issue, but last month, CEO Mick McKinley gave evidence to the Senate saying: “We've been on a trajectory to phase out two tiers for some time. As I said, discussion started in 2006 with that original date of 2023. There are a few reasons for that. The primary reason is getting airflow across twin-tier pens. There are two aspects to airflow: one is the number of air changes you have in a space per unit of time and the other is how you distribute the air across the pens. 

“Where two-tier pens have a problem is in getting our requirement of 0.5 meters per second right across the surface of the pens. Basically, I don't think any of the two-tier ships meet that requirement. The other issue is about animal husbandry. When you have two tiers in a deck, access is a challenge. For example, if you have shy feeders, you can't see well how the animals are behaving in the pens. You can't access the pens to remove sick animals and that sort of thing. They are the reasons why we are on that trajectory to phase out two tiers.”

The RSPCA has expressed its grave concern that the Morrison Government is intending to defy the advice of its own agency and backflip on the key live sheep export reform, thereby allowing the “worst of the worse” live export ships to keep operating in 2020 and beyond. Following the Awassi Express outcry last year, the then Morrison Government Agriculture Minister, David Littleproud, committed to phasing out the high-risk twin-tier vessels by the January 1 deadline.

There are two twin tier vessels currently operating out of Australia, both over 30 years old, and both owned by the two wealthiest live export companies in the world, says the RSPCA - the vessels are the Maysora and the Al Shuwaikh.

“The animal welfare consequences of this decision are profound, while the economic advantages are so limited. It really makes no sense whichever way you look at it,” said Senior Policy Officer Dr. Jed Goodfellow. “When these proposed changes were opened up to consultation in June 2018, thousands of Australians (over 7,000 through the RSPCA alone) made submissions in support of the phase-out.

“And yet, despite clear evidence from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority - including a minimal impact on shipping capacity - it appears the Morrison Government is intent on allowing these floating rust buckets to continue transporting Australian sheep,” he said.

“What does this say about the Morrison Government’s commitment to protecting animal welfare, and just as importantly, their ability to effectively manage these rogue live export companies? This is precisely the kind of poor decision-making that led to the current live export crisis and turned hundreds of thousands of Australians into advocates against this cruel trade, as they grew ever more infuriated by the government’s inaction while countless animals suffered over decades.”

Goodfellow notes the recent incident where a livestock carrier capsized off Romania killing all but a couple of hundred of the 14,600 sheep onboard. “We’re seeing community concern over this trade remaining high, a continuing record of animal welfare disasters and major financial institutions strengthening their ethical lending policies - now is not the time for the Australian Government to go weak on standards.” 

RSPCA Australia strongly encourages Minister Michael McCormack, who is the responsible minister, to reconsider the decision.

McCormack's move is also unpopular with livestock export company Wellard. Executive Chairman John Klepec said: “The Federal Government’s decision to force single tiered vessels to meet minimum air velocity standards while awarding double tiered vessels an ongoing holiday is contrary to good animal welfare so risks the long term sustainability of the live sheep industry and the farmers that rely on it.

“Back in 2006, after assessing the minimum ventilation requirement to achieve acceptable animal welfare outcomes, AMSA imposed a minimum ventilation requirement of 0.5 meters/second. It is unfathomable that 13 years later double tiered vessels are being specifically exempted from this minimum requirement while single tiered vessels, which provide numerous other animal welfare benefits, must comply.

“Many vessel owners, including Wellard, have invested large amounts of money to upgrade ventilation systems or improve ventilation design to meet the new standards and reduce risks to animal welfare. Vessel owners who have chosen not to invest in upgrading their vessels up to the minimum standard now have a commercial advantage by being granted these special privileges.

“Frankly, that’s a perverse outcome and contrary to the Australian public’s expectation and the long-term future of a trade that can ill-afford another animal welfare incident.”

Klepec says that claims that there will not be enough shipping capacity to handle the logistics task if double tier ships are banned is wrong. “In fact, there is presently an oversupply of shipping capacity.” This view was confirmed by AMSA last month, with McKinley saying: “Our view is that there are ships available….If we look at all of the ships that are available in that trade, without looking at specific companies, our understanding is that there is adequate compliant tonnage available.”

There are currently eight AMSA accredited long haul vessels. Removing double tier vessels will reduce the number to six.

Klepec says: “There were 1.1 million sheep exported by Australia in 2018 and 1.9 million sheep exported in 2017. Wellard’s two large livestock carriers, the M/V Ocean Drover and M/V Ocean Shearer are modern, purpose-built carriers. Combined they can carry 1.2 million sheep annually (all of 2018 requirements and two thirds of 2017 requirements) at current allometric stocking rates.”

The Department of Infrastructure says that, as of December 2, no companies have applied for an exemption.