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Live Export: Another Cover Up

The Awassi Express courtesy of Adelaide Against Live Export
The Awassi Express courtesy of Adelaide Against Live Export

By The Maritime Executive 2019-02-20 18:18:37

Australian Greens Senator and Spokesperson for Animal Welfare, Dr. Mehreen Faruqi, has revealed documents that she says show that the Department of Agriculture had a role in editing the review of its own performance as a regulator of the live export industry. 

Faruqi obtained the documents through an Order for Production of Documents into all draft versions of the Review of the Regulatory Capability and Culture of the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources in the Regulation of Live Animal Exports, known as the Moss Review, released late last year. 

The review was sparked by whistleblower footage taken on five voyages including a 2017 Awassi Express voyage when thousands of sheep died of heat stress.

Faruqi asserts that the Department did everything in its power to try and weaken the report’s recommendations. She said: “'The department has failed as a regulator.' This is the beginning of the draft report provided to the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources on 17 December 2018. 10 days later, when the final version was released by the minister, those words had been removed.

“The department of agriculture's fingerprints are all over draft versions of the so-called independent report,” said Faruqi. “They were shown at least four draft versions of the report, provided extensive editing and were allowed to influence and even propose deletion of whole sections of the report. We see the department suggesting that wide-ranging criticisms of the government and its contribution to animal cruelty be removed, and these criticisms never made it into the final report. We saw that the agriculture department wanted to remove statements about any involvement or praise of animal welfare groups—the very groups that exposed the animal cruelty in the first place.”

The Moss review put much of the blame for live export cruelty at the government's feet, she said. “It blamed them for the departure of experienced staff members, some of whom predicted this disaster. The report blamed the government's deregulation policy. The review stated that the science that suggested that the stocking densities and heat stress in the live export standards were incorrect would probably apply to other animals who suffer live export, but, 10 days later, those criticisms were gone.”

Faruqi's criticisms come as another consequence of the 2017 Awassi Express voyage fails to reveal the full picture of Department of Agriculture operations. Minister for Agriculture David Littleproud commissioned the Lawler review as a result of the Moss review. However, former Crime Commission leader John Lawler has said that he cannot proceed with investigation of allegations that details such as the number of livestock deaths have been falsified in investigation reports as the whistleblower's identity would be revealed if he did.

Another whistleblower is also making the news in Australia this year. Allegations have been made that the seafarer who took the footage on the Awassi Express may have deliberately tampered with the vessel's ventilation system in order to create a heat stress crisis so he could receive money for footage of animal cruelty - allegedly he may have received money from Animals Australia. However, Vets Against Live Export voices skepticism that a junior bridge officer would be able to stage heat stress events on all decks on five voyages under the watchful eyes of Australian stockmen and veterinarians. The organization also notes that the government investigation report into the 2017 Awassi Express voyage states: “When high heat and humidity started to affect sheep, individual animals identified as heat affected or bogged were removed into alleyways and placed near ventilators.” This would indicate that ventilators were working at the time.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) inspected the Awassi Express 39 times in the five years before the whistleblower footage was aired. Shortly after the footage was made available to the government, AMSA inspected the vessel again while she was docked in Fremantle, Western Australia, and demanded a third party air flow verification report to prove compliance with air flow standards before the vessel would be authorized to depart Australia again. No mention of deliberate tampering was made at the time, and subsequently, works were conducted on the vessel's ventilation system.

Details of the number of AMSA inspections conducted on the Awassi Express were provided by The Australian. The Awassi Express, built in 1990, had visited Australia on 27 voyages in the past five years. The inspections conducted include seven port state control inspections, four annual surveys to validate its Australian Certificate for the Carriage of Livestock and 28 livestock pre-load inspections, the most recent one prior to the April 2017 high mortality voyage occurring in February that year. 

AMSA has come under the spotlight again as a result of Department of Agriculture investigations. The Department placed observers on a number of voyages last year. After a Freedom of Information battle, the RSPCA gained access to some of the observers' reports, although they were heavily redacted by the government prior to their release, sparking claims of a cover up.

Several observers noted that vessels approved by AMSA to carry livestock sailed a zigzag pattern to increase airflow across open decks to lessen the effects of heat stress on the livestock. Extra fans were installed on the closed decks of another vessel to boost ventilation, and on entering the Persian Gulf, another vessel's crew took particular notice of the weather report and avoided areas of high humidity. 

Some noted flooding from rain or from ballast tanks in some pens, and on one vessel, the cattle were not washed down for eight days, as the relative distribution of livestock and fodder meant the vessel's trim could not be safely adjusted to allow the washwater to flow off the decks.

One vessel had a pen approved to hold livestock by AMSA that, in practice, needed the crew to erect an extra gate to stop livestock falling down grates. In the pens that are to have a different floor area depending on whether sheep or cattle are held, AMSA requires that a gate be put up. However, the observer noted that as soon as the vessel sailed, these gates were removed to give the livestock more space and because some animals tend to jump through and get caught in the empty space.

As a result of the whistle blower footage, politicians and voters from a spectrum of political parties have spoken out against the live export trade. The Labor Party, currently in opposition, has committed to phase out the live export of sheep, a move supported by the Greens. Faruqi says: “We have been fighting to stop live exports for 30 years, and we will keep fighting, because the live export industry is inherently cruel. The reality is that it cannot be regulated to meet community expectations or animal welfare. The only solution is to shut it down.”