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What are the standards of animal welfare onboard live export ships?

Standards for the preparation, loading and confinement of animals on board ship are set by the federal government through the Australian Standards for the Export of Livestock (ASEL), which were introduced following the Cormo Express disaster in 2003. However, these standards fail to meet the basic requirements of animal welfare or prevent exported livestock from suffering and dying on these voyages.

Animals experience a range of serious welfare problems caused by the conditions in which they are transported on live export ships, including heat stress, failure to eat, injury and disease, leading to morbidity and mortality. These problems are exacerbated by extreme heat and humidity, rough weather, and prolonged confinement for up to 5 weeks on board ship. The key issues affecting animal welfare on board live export ships are:

High stocking densities

Live export carriers can carry up to 70,000 animals on up to 10 decks, each fitted with fixed pens and metal non-slip flooring. Stocking densities inside these pens were set in the 1970s and have changed little since that time. Space allowances per animal are so small they do not allow for all animals to lie down at the same time, easily access food and water, move freely, or for sick or injured animals to be easily identified. These high stocking densities exacerbate levels of heat stress, failure to eat, morbidity, and mortality. Scientific evidence indicates that in order to meet animals’ basic needs, space allowances in ship-board pens should be at least doubled – in other words, the number of animals loaded onto each vessel needs to be halved.

Lack of bedding or manure removal

Sheep on live export journeys are generally not provided with any bedding, nor are their pens cleaned out during the voyage. The pen floor is bare metal with a non-slip surface. Over the course of the journey, faeces, urine, spilt feed pellets and water build up to form a layer of manure. On long-haul voyages, the heat and humidity means this can turn into dense, sticky mud, causing sheep to become bogged. Unless these sheep are assisted, they will slowly suffer and die from starvation or dehydration. Cattle decks are washed out during the voyage, and cattle are provided with a thin layer of sawdust or similar material as bedding, however, this is insufficient to prevent foot and leg abrasions or injuries from occurring. As with sheep, cattle can also become coated in manure especially during hot and humid conditions.

Lack of independent and appropriate veterinary care

Government standards only require veterinarians to travel on live export voyages of 10 days or longer, and only one veterinarian is required per vessel, with the responsibility of caring for up to 70,000 animals housed over many decks. These veterinarians used to be government employees but now they are chosen and contracted directly by the exporter. Since this system was introduced in the 1990s, there have been several well-publicised examples of exporters exerting undue influence over veterinarians and of vets being ostracised by the industry for commenting on poor conditions on board.

The 2003 Keniry review recommended that shipboard veterinarians be independent and not employed by either the exporting company or the shipping company. The Australian Veterinary Association take a similar view and also advocate that the number of vets on board should be proportionate to the risk of the journey and the number of animals carried in order that sick or injured animals can be promptly treated or euthanased where necessary.

In 2018, following the high profile exposure of sheep suffering on-board live export vessels to the Middle East, the Australian Government introduced a requirement for ‘departmental observers’ to accompany all live export voyages to monitor on-board conditions. Summaries of the observer reports are published on the Department’s website.

High mortality rates and heat stress

Deaths on board ship are common on all sheep voyages and on some cattle voyages. This can vary from a small number to several thousand animals per voyage.

Mortality approximately doubles when sheep are transported from the Australian winter to the Middle Eastern summer (May to October). On average, sheep deaths are lowest in the first four months of the year, rise to a peak in August and remain above 1% until after October. Two separate government reviews (Keniry Review 2003; Farmer Review 2011) have indicated that that the mortality rates of sheep exported into the Middle Eastern summer are unacceptably high.

The conditions that sheep experience during export to the Middle East were exposed on national television in 2018. This led the Australian Government to commission a review of the trade during the Middle Eastern summer. The McCarthy Review recommended that the Heat Stress Risk Assessment used by the industry and the Department to determine stocking densities be revised so that it is based on avoiding heat stress, not simply mortalities. This recommendation is likely to lead to the end of the live export trade to the Middle East during May to October as it is impossible to avoid heat stress at this time.

Cattle are also affected by export during this period, especially European breeds exported from southern ports. Stocking density adjustments cannot protect animals from morbidity and mortality when temperatures approach or reach the heat stress threshold for the species concerned.

Mortality rates are an extreme indicator of poor animal welfare: they signal an underlying level of suffering and stress in the broader population. Exported animals experience cumulative stress as they are mixed with unfamiliar animals, transported, loaded and confined at high stocking densities. Some animals fail to adapt to the on-board pelleted ration and stop eating, others will contract conjunctivitis (pink eye), or suffer from mucosal irritation, salmonellosis, enteritis, or pneumonia. Those that experience severe heat stress are unable to control their rising body temperature until their organs eventually fail.

When does the government investigate on-board mortalities?

The Australian Government only investigates on-board mortalities if they exceed a certain threshold. On long-haul voyages, this has only been when mortality rates of 2% for sheep and 1% of cattle are reached. However, following the exposure of sheep suffering on-board live export vessels in 2018, the Australian Government is proposing to reduce these rates to 1% for sheep and 0.5% for cattle. Following a review of the Australian Standards for the Export of Livestock (ASEL), as of 1 November 2020, the notifiable voyage mortality level will be 0.5% for cattle and 1% for sheep. The different rates for cattle and sheep are an indication of their relative value to the exporters: sheep deaths matter less than cattle deaths. So on a voyage involving 70,000 sheep, 700 must die before the cause of death is investigated.

Mortality rates are routinely exceeded (at least 70 occasions since 2006), but in practice they represent only a small proportion of voyages with unusually high death rates. Between 2014 and 2018, 32 sheep voyages had a mortality rate of over 1%, when the industry average was 0.74%, yet only 3 of these triggered an investigation. The Australian Government also publishes 6-monthly statistics on mortality rates during live export journeys.

If you would like to take action on this issue, please visit our live export campaign pages.

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Updated on May 29, 2020
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