Ireland revokes licence of livestock ship operator over low performance rating

Sophie Kevany
Photograph: Paulo Whitaker/Reuters

The Irish government revoked approvals for the operator of two regular livestock carriers, the Atlantic M and the Express 1, last week, following questions from the Guardian and Irish farm animal welfare organisation Ethical Farming Ireland (EFI).

Internal emails appear to show that Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) was unaware that the performance ratings for the ships’ operator was below the required standard until a campaigner from EFI got in touch last year.

Last week DAFM told the Guardian it had written to the “owner/operator of the Atlantic M and the Express 1 regarding the department’s intention to revoke their approval … once the department became aware of the performance rating”.

“The operator was given 14 days to make representations”, the email went on to say, before the “owners/operator’s approval was subsequently revoked”.

Ireland’s exports of dairy, beef and livestock are a pillar of its agri-food sector. The latest figures from Bord Bia, the Irish food board, show agri-food products account for 10% of total exports. International sales of meat and livestock earned the country almost €4bn (£3.3bn) in 2019.

Shipping is an opaque and complex area, however, all the more so when live animals are involved. In 2016, to complement EU law, Ireland introduced another layer of regulation on the carriage of livestock by sea.

The regulations stipulate that the performance level of companies operating livestock vessels “must not be listed as ‘low or very low’ on the performance tables of Port State Control published by the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA)”.

But the operator of the Atlantic M and the Express 1, two ships that regularly carry livestock from Ireland, fell into EMSA’s “low or very low” bracket. The EMSA website and Panama-based shipping registration service, PMA Certification, show both vessels are operated by Turkish company Emiroglu Deniz Nakliyati. The list is updated daily and relates to the previous 36 months.

The Guardian contacted DAFM to ask for more information about the situation. On 10 February the department replied, saying that it had revoked the operator’s approval for both ships. Questions about the future of both ships, or the approval of a new operator, were not answered.

Emails seen by the Guardian indicate that the DAFM was previously unaware that the safety and compliance manager for the Atlantic M and Express 1 was on the EMSA’s “low or very low performance” list.

The monitoring gap allowed livestock shipments to continue as normal in the preceding months. In the emails the management for the ships expressed surprise at the sudden approvals revocation in early 2020, given that the vessels had already “loaded from Ireland many [times]”, and each time the DAFM had inspected the vessels, “we get approval, so what happened now?”

Related: ‘Floating feedlots’: animals spending weeks at sea on ships not fit for purpose

In an interview with the Guardian, the ships’ former safety management company, the Istanbul-based Emiroğlu Deniz Nakliyatı, confirmed that the DAFM had revoked their approval in January this year because the company was on the EMSA’s low-performing list. Explaining the rating, Emiroğlu Deniz Nakliyati’s operations manager Erhan Çavdar said this had followed the detainment of some of its ships. One of the detained ships was the Atlantic M.

Caroline Rowley of EFI told the Guardian she had emailed the DAFM on 30 December, raising concerns about the Atlantic M and the Express 1. The same day, the DAFM raised those concerns with the ships’ management in an email marked “urgent”.

Earlier in December, Rowley had also notified the DAFM about problems with the operator of a third Irish livestock carrier, the Sarah M. At that point, the Sarah M was operated by the Beirut Shipping Company, whose performance was listed by EMSA as “low or very low”. The Sarah M is now operated by DMS lines, which is not on the low or very low listing.

Despite Rowley’s emails, which the department acknowledged, the next Sarah M cattle shipment went ahead at the end of 2019.

The Guardian tried to contact the Beirut Shipping Company, but was told by Farouk El Murr, who works for the Sarah M’s current operator, DMS Lines, based at the same address, that the Beirut Shipping Company had closed in “late December, early January”. El Murr said the closure had come “after its licence was revoked by the Irish DAFM because it was on the low or very low performing EMSA list”.

An Irish marine law expert, who has asked to remain anonymous, told the Guardian that the Irish carriage of livestock regulations appeared to make no provision for monitoring any changes to an operator’s rating. Nor, the lawyer said, do they appear to require an operator to inform the DAFM if it is placed on the EMSA’s “low or very low performance” list after it has been approved.

Related: ‘Floating feedlots’: animals spending weeks at sea on ships not fit for purpose

Responding to the lawyer’s comments, the DAFM said the “system for the approval of vessels for the carriage of livestock in Ireland involves a comprehensive inspection by a marine surveyor and by a departmental veterinarian to determine the suitability of the vessel for that particular purpose”.

“In addition to that, the department requires the vessel to have a valid classification certificate issued by a classification society which is a member of the International Association of Classification Societies. This is clearly not the sole requirement for approval.”

Rowley fears that if she had not contacted the DAFM, “these vessels would still be operating in breach of regulations with the department being none the wiser.”

She said there is a wider issue in the way that these regulations are being monitored and what seems to be a gap between what the agriculture department says and what it does. “The DAFM prides itself on its exceptionally high standards. But when we see vessels with operating companies that don’t meet the criteria, vessels transferred to new operators just a few weeks after we send emails, we have to wonder whether anyone really cares about those animals.”

An internal document appears to justify some of her concerns about the DAFM prioritising appearances. Although undated, a slide from a DAFM presentation seen by the Guardian, titled “Changes for 2019”, says it expects animal exporters to “comply fully with legislative requirements and minimise opportunities for NGOs and the [European] Commission to criticise and complain about Ireland’s compliances”.