IN THE NEWS: Live sheep export debate: WA issues challenge to Federal Government


IN THE NEWS: On APR 15, 2018

AGRICULTURE Minister Alannah MacTiernan may wield WA's Animal Welfare Act to force a "nine-week pause" in sheep shipments to the Middle East.

Ms McTiernan said it would be an option if the Federal Government didn't act in the wake of the Awassi Express scandal to stop thousands of WA sheep being cooked alive on ships during the Middle East's searing hot summer.

She said she didn't want to pre-empt the "short, sharp review" announced by Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud after he saw horrific video footage from the Awassi Express last Sunday.

Ms MacTiernan said she was disappointed Mr Littleproud had already ruled out stopping the trade in the hottest months.

"I have written to him saying I think that was most unfortunate because it might well be that there is no other commercial solution," she said.

She said there were only three realistic solutions to the crisis, two of which she felt the industry would be unlikely to pursue — installing air-conditioning on ships and halving stock density — because both would massively increase costs. The third option was a "pause" in shipments to the region.

"The sort of period we are looking at is a nine-week period," she said. "You get this unbearable 94 per cent humidity combined with incredible heat towards the end of summer (there)."

Using the WA Animal Welfare Act to take action against exporters who sailed to Middle East during this nine-week period — when there was a high probability of mass sheep deaths — was an option for the State Government.

"There is certainly some potential that the legislation would allow us to do that," Ms McTiernan said on Friday.

"We'll get that advice, just so we have more options, but we are not going to pre-empt this review."

Ms McTiernan last year sought advice from the State Solicitor on whether the Animal Welfare Act could be applied to the live export trade. There was some uncertainty about whether Commonwealth laws superseded State law.

"The advice I got from the State Solicitor was that our laws would still apply," Ms McTiernan said.

Inspectors from her department are investigating the Awassi Expressdisaster, in which about 2400 sheep perished, most in agony. She said the matter was being "vigorously pursued".

Ms McTiernan said she realised something had to be done after seeing the Federal Government's "clearly inadequate" response to 3027 sheep deaths on the Al Messilah a year earlier. The exporter in both incidents was West Perth-based Emanuel Exports.

"Having got that advice (from the State Solicitor) we have a role and responsibility here to enforce our legislation so from that point inspectors have been going down on a regular basis and inspecting the ships," Ms MacTiernan said.

"The more that we look at the science, the more that we look at the heat stress, the more difficult it is to condone taking sheep from the southern winter and taking them over into the extreme heat and humidity conditions of the Middle East."

Every high mortality voyage to the Middle East since 2009 has occurred in a peak heat period: August 2009, June 2010, July 2010, August 2010, June 2011, September 2013, July 2016 and August 2017.

Ms McTiernan said she was encouraged that groups such as the National Farmers Federation were coming around to the idea of a pause in shipments during these months

According to Animals Australia, "records as far back as the 1960s document the death rate on ships during this period causes deaths at almost double the rate encountered during the Middle East winter months."

Vets Against Live Exports' Dr Sue Foster said stopping the trade in this period was "absolutely critical and has to happen now".

"We are realistic enough to know that stopping the (entire) trade is not likely to happen, so we have to concentrate on the single worst parts of the trade," she said. "And the worst part is the sheep trade to the Middle East in the northern summer.

"The proposal from the exporter to give the animals more space is nonsensical. The science is clear that once humidity and temperature get too high the animals cannot control their body temperature and just cook from the inside," said Dr Foster.

"Shipboard ventilation merely moves the ambient air around and through the pens, at the ambient temperature and humidity."

The Sunday Times can reveal Animals Australia, which obtained the Awassi Express footage, has lodged a formal complaint with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission against the Australian Livestock Exporters' Council (ALEC), which is the industry's peak body

"Our view is that there is substantive evidence that ALEC is engaging in misleading and deceptive conduct in contravention of Australian Consumer Law," Animals Australia's Lyn White said.

"ALEC is actively deceiving producers about animal welfare standards in the live export trade for the purpose of gaining access to their animals for commercial profit. The scale and deliberate nature of this deceptive conduct over the years has been staggering."

Animals Australia cited representations in ALEC's publicity, including "Our livestock welfare commitment: No fear, no pain."

"ALEC are representing (to farmers) a strong assurance that the animals they sell to the live export trade will be treated to world class animal welfare standards and do not experience fear or pain throughout the live export process," the complaint to the ACCC stated.

Other "misleading claims" listed included that animals have enough space to stand up and sit down; fresh air is constantly available and that animals have access to clean, fresh water.

ALEC didn't respond to the specific points, but chief executive Simon Westaway said exporters were open to a range of steps including: investigating a reduction in stocking densities; more effective monitoring and recording of on-board conditions; additional independent on-board personnel; auditing of ventilation and drainage; and additional training for on-board vets and stock handlers.

"Farmers put their faith in us to sustain and grow the live sheep trade, which is worth $250 million annually, and we are determined that we will not let them down," he said.

"The best ship you have got is still stacking a 47 kilo animal in .308 of a square metre," said Dr Foster.

"Sheep cannot, even in good conditions, get to their food and water without having to climb over other sheep.

"The (industry) keep saying they're making improvements, but if you haven't changed the space since 1983 how can you possibly be making improvements?"

Ms White said conditions seen in the Awassi Express footage weren't unique to that vessel or exporter.

"The problem is systemic and predictable," she said.

"The PR response to every crisis is to tell farmers what they know they want to hear – assurances of change — knowing that no-one can actually check whether that change has actually occurred.

"Any initiatives that have resulted in improvements over the years have been instigated by public outrage. Cruelty and suffering has never been proactively prevented or addressed by exporters."

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