A “downer” is an animal who can't, or refuses to, stand up. One of the reasons this can happen during a live export voyage is that the animal slips over. With hind legs splayed, they are vulnerable to trampling and unable to reach feed or water. Being stepped on by penmates can result in body and leg bruising and in herniation of abdominal contents and genitals – conditions that are very painful and potentially fatal. The animals are often euthanized.
That was the fate of around 90 cattle on the maiden journey of the GL Kaihou, a purpose-built livestock carrier newbuild built in China, that sailed from Darwin in Australia to Brunei earlier this year.
A government report attributed the deaths to ineffective non-slip flooring. The paint had a finer aggregate than normal and had an additional surface coat which reduced the coating's functionality once wet. “Cattle were losing their footing from the start of the voyage, and it was evident to the Australian Government Accredited Veterinarian that the deck surfaces were too smooth,” states the report. “Affected animals were observed to scramble, slip, and fall and were subsequently unable to rise.”
77 cattle were euthanized during the eight-day journey, 18 were euthanized on arrival and another five died naturally. Efforts were initially made to move cattle out of pens containing downers, but this stressed nearby animals causing more to slip and fall.
The GL Kaihou experienced rough seas on the first day of the voyage. The master could have turned back but didn't.
Dr Bidda Jones, Chief Science and Strategy Officer for animal welfare organization RSPCA Australia, says it was an inexcusable tragedy. “The cause of these deaths is not disputed – despite being a purpose-built livestock export vessel, the floor of the vessel did not have a sufficiently abrasive surface to prevent cattle from slipping. This was exacerbated by rough weather on days one and two of the voyage.
“What is at question is why this voyage was allowed to occur in the first place. There were three lost opportunities to prevent this appalling situation:
· First, when the Australian Maritime Safety Authority inspected the decks and failed to pick up the sub-standard flooring.
· Second, when the Australian Government Veterinary Officer, the Accredited Stockman and the representative of the exporter ‘flagged concerns about the floor surface’ before the vessel had left port.
· And third, once the voyage had commenced and it was evident to the Accredited Veterinarian that cattle were losing their footing.
“What went wrong at each of these stages? Why was the vessel allowed to leave port? Why was the voyage not aborted as soon as it was clear that the situation was getting worse by the minute and the vessel was heading into rough seas?”
Jones says the incident underscores the inevitable risks associated with the live export trade. “This should have been an example of a low-risk voyage – a relatively short duration (only eight days), an experienced veterinarian on board, extra space per animal (the vessel was loaded to 70 percent of the legal capacity) and bedding provided.”
Jones wants the Australian Maritime Safety Authority to review its inspection process and the government to review its advice to exporters and Accredited Veterinarians about their responsibilities to return livestock to port. She says the Australian Maritime Safety Authority Marine Orders are clear in the requirement for non-slip flooring: MO43 Clause 23.6: “The deck within pens, passageways and ramps between decks must have a surface that provides a satisfactory non-slip foothold for the cattle.”
“We would also recommend that the requirement for daily reporting on livestock health and welfare is extended to all voyages. This is currently only required for voyages of 10 days or more.”
Issues with slipping and falling are a recurrent theme in live export voyages under certain conditions, says Jones: during rough sea condition, when floors become wet during poor weather, during wash-outs, leaks or poor drainage. “Each time this occurs it seems to be treated as a one-off event.”
Veterinarian Dr Sue Foster from the animal welfare group Vets Against Live Export (VALE) has repeatedly raised concerns about the validity of industry-funded welfare studies – in particular, a scientific paper published in the Australian Veterinary Journal in 2015 which analyzed mortality but excluded voyages with high mortality rates.
The study excluded four high mortality voyages: the Charolais Express 1998 (inadequate ventilation and heavy weather), Kalymnian Express 1999 (cyclone), Temburong 1999 (power loss, ventilation failure and 74.7 percent mortality) and the MV Becrux 2002 (ventilation). “These were all disasters due to weather or ventilation, and these are inherent risks of sea transport that should have been discussed as serious and legitimate risk factors.”
Foster says that the GL Kaihou voyage puts paid to the myth that short voyages are more humane than long voyages. “It also again highlights the inadequacy of the 2015 industry-funded paper that excluded the causes of extreme mortality voyages when every extreme mortality shorthaul voyage is due to the same factors: sea/weather or ship factors such as mechanical breakdown or, in this instance, flooring.”
A review of the government's published mortality reports (dated back to 2006), reveals a number of cases in which flooring contributed to cattle mortalities. In 2006, cattle suffered from lameness and secondary leg infections, most likely caused by flooring that was too abrasive and wet. In 2007, there was a cluster of three incidents involving the same vessel. Cattle sustained injuries after slipping and falling both during the voyage and at discharge, which was attributed to slippery ‘worn down’ flooring.
The government report proposes additional conditions for maiden voyages of new livestock export ships as part of the current Australian Standards for the Export of Livestock (ASEL) review, noting that the exporting company involved in the GL Kaihou case, South East Asian Livestock Services, has had three other reportable high mortalities voyages recorded as a result of exporting cattle by sea to Brunei and Vietnam.
The exporter took action after the GL Kaihou had discharged her cargo in Brunei. She was sailed directly to a shipyard to undergo remediation of the floors and has since sailed from Australia again carrying livestock.
In a response to the incident, at the time, the Australian Livestock Exporters Council said onboard losses were regrettable, but the industry remained committed to the health and well-being of livestock. “As stated in an Australian Farm Institute study October 2016, mortality rates during ocean transport have declined with better management and ship design and are now comparable with, or below, normal farm rates.”
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.