Michael McCormack granted an exemption to allow a live export ship to carry sheep to the Middle East despite the ship failing ventilation requirements – a move the RSPCA said put attempts to restore the reputation of Australia’s live export industry at risk.
The transport minister granted the 34-year-old Kuwait-flagged livestock carrier Al Shuwaikh an exemption from new rules that came into force on 31 December prohibiting livestock from being transported on double-decked tiers.
The exemption was granted against the advice of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.
The ship departed Fremantle on Friday bound for Oman with 64,000 sheep on board.
The Department of Agriculture demanded it reduce its stocking density “to minimise any animal welfare impacts” caused by the ship having low ceiling heights on the double-tiered decks, which restrict air flow to levels below an acceptable minimum standard set by AMSA.
In a statement, a spokesman for McCormack said the government granted exemptions to the marine orders on a “case-by-case basis”. It said the factors in this decision included an animal welfare plan for the voyage approved by the agriculture department.
He said the exemption was also granted “on the grounds that the operator agrees to a clear plan to meet legislated ventilation and decking requirements as soon as practicable”.
The RSPCA senior policy officer, Dr Jed Goodfellow, said the exemption was granted “against the clear advice of the independent regulator” and risked another heat stress event.
“It’s very much taking a gamble with animal welfare and with the future of the trade itself because if something happens here it’s on the minister’s head,” Goodfellow said.
“We would really hope that this [exemption] is a one-off because as long as double-tier vessels continue to be approved vessels for live export in Australia, the government really has no right to say that it takes animal welfare seriously.”
Goodfellow said that the airflow readings in some areas of the ship were 0.2 metres per second, more than half of the 0.5 metres per second set by AMSA as the minimum standard.
The legislation allows for the minister to make an exemption for stock carried on twin-tiered decks, but not ordinary decks which do not meet ventilation requirements. The statement from McCormack said stock was not loaded on the single-tier deck.
“That suggests that the single-tier of the Al Shuwaikh could not meet the basic ventilation requirements, which in turn suggests that there’s abysmal ventilation on the double-tiered decks,” Goodfellow said.
He said the reduced head clearance on twin-tiered decks created “ventilation dead spots” which allowed warm air to settle over the sheep “like a thick wet heat blanket”, increasing the likelihood of sheep dying or severely suffering from heat stress.
The Australian government is expected to announce a permanent ban on live-exports to the Middle East during the hottest parts of the northern hemisphere summer as part of reforms prompted by several mass mortality heat stress events.
Al Shuwaikh is the only double-tiered live export ship currently operating in Australia.
It is owned by Kuwait Livestock Transport and Trading, with Perth-based Rural Export and Trading WA (RETWA) as the Australian exporter.
In a statement, RETWA said it “agrees with the Government’s policy to phase out twin-tier livestock vessels, however, requires more time to transition to new arrangements”.
The AMSA chief executive, Mick Kinley, said the regulator had been discussing phasing out twin-tiered ships the live export industry since 2006 and had agreed to phase out by 2021, “well in advance” of the live export reforms announced in 2018.
Another live exporter, Livestock Shipping Services, said it spent a “significant” amount of money converting the twin-tiered decks of its ship the Bader III to comply with Australian animal welfare requirements. Another LSS ship, the Maysora, is currently being upgraded, Goodfellow said.
He said the decision to grant the exemption “places the better operators in the trade at a competitive disadvantage”.
“They are effectively penalised for investing in better-performing vessels,” he said.
In a statement, Mark Harvey-Sutton, the chief executive officer of the Australian Live Export Council, said the decision to use twin-tiered ships was a “commercial matter for our members.
“The exemptions were granted under a sound regulatory regime that all exporters are subject to and the decision whether to seek an exemption is a decision to be made by exporters on a commercial basis,” he said.
RETWA also said Al Shuwaikh “has a history of good animal welfare performance over 153 voyages carrying more than 10.5 million sheep”.
A report released by the agriculture department last year said some sheep on a 2018 voyage of Al Shuwaikh died due to smothering when crowding around air vents.