The exporter at the centre of the latest live trade controversy says “no-one is to blame” for the deaths of 2,400 Australian sheep on a journey to the Middle East last year.
Emanuel Exports managing director Graham Daws said a “catastrophic weather event” led to the deaths and that animals on board its latest shipment would have a “generous” amount of space.
The exporter granted the ABC exclusive access to its shipment of 68,000 sheep aboard the Al Messilah before it left Fremantle on Monday bound for Kuwait and Qatar.
It’s a rare move in an industry which usually hides from the cameras and shows just how desperate the trade is to claw back a social licence after graphic pictures broadcast on 60 Minutes showed sheep dead, dying and suffering heat stress on the Awassi Express.
So how is this voyage different to the ill-fated one last year?
- An independent observer paid by the Federal Government is on board
- The number of sheep on board has been reduced by 17.5 per cent
- There is an agreement with the importer and ship owner, Kuwait Livestock Transport and Trading, to offload in Kuwait before Qatar, exposing fewer sheep to high humidity, according to Emanuel Exports
The industry knows it is on final notice, with numerous inquiries underway and moves afoot in Federal Parliament to phase out the live sheep trade worth $249 million a year.
Some groups, including Vets Against Live Exports, have called for a ban on sheep exports during the northern summer.
Let’s take a look on board the ship and inside the industry.
Managing director of Emanuel Exports Graham Daws said the amount of space for sheep on board the Al Messilah was “generous”. (ABC News: Cy Millington)
Once the sheep board the ship they are the property of the importer, but under Australian rules and regulations, the exporter is still responsible for their welfare.
“Our responsibility starts from when we buy the sheep until they are slaughtered at the other end,” Mr Daws said.
And it is bad for business if an animal dies before then.
“They want good healthy live animals at the other end. They pay $US150 for them. They don’t want one dead one.”
That would make the value of Al Messilah’s cargo more than $13.5 million.
Mr Daws told the ABC a seasonal ban “would not be a viable proposition”.
“I think the business would close completely and farmers would be selling their farms.”
As the biggest player in the industry, Emanuel Exports has the most to gain, and the most to lose.
It led the charge in 2008, when exporters went to court to fight government moves to reduce the number of sheep per pen on live export carriers.
But Mr Daws said the industry was now committed to making “hard decisions”.
On board the ship
The Al Messiilah docked in Fremantle ahead of its journey to the Middle East. (ABC News: James Carmody)
Ten floors of the 38-year-old Al Messilah were loaded with sheep.
It was noisy due to huge ventilation fans which pumped fresh air drawn from outside around the enclosed hold while an exhaust system sucked air from the ground out.
Dr Colin Scrivener is the ship’s veterinarian.
He has a big job. He’s the only health and welfare officer on board for all 68,000 sheep.
There’s also an Australian stockman and about 40 shipping company employees who work with the animals.
Dr Scrivener worked on the Awassi Express and said the Animals Australia vision, which outraged the nation, was not a true depiction of what happens on a live export ship.
“Heat stress is a very minimal problem,” he said, referring to scenes in the Animals Australia vision.
“There’d always be a big advantage in air-conditioning, but the cost benefit [analysis] is low when it’s not a big problem.”
He said by ensuring the ship offloads first in the dry heat of Kuwait, before travelling to Qatar where there is higher humidity, the problem could be “managed”.
But the Awassi Express deaths were not isolated.
Two years ago, this ship — the Al Messilah — lost 3,000 sheep.
“No, there’s not a pattern there at all,” Mr Daws said.
“The incidents in 2016 and 2017 we mitigated as much as we could but unfortunately no one can predict that weather event.”
But Animals Australia says port order is not a factor, and high mortality records between 2006 and 2017 show heat stress deaths often start as soon as ships enter Middle Eastern waters.
“Since 2005, Emanuel Exports’ two directors have been associated with shipments exceeding 1,000 sheep deaths on 37 occasions, including 12 ‘reportable’ incidents where mortality rates were above 2 per cent,” an Animals Australia spokesperson said.
“Animals Australia is astounded Emanuel Exports has maintained its export licence,” she said.
How much space do the sheep get?
On average, a sheep is allowed one third of a square metre of space.
With 17.5 per cent less sheep on board this voyage, they’ll get a little more.
“It’s a very generous space allocation,” Mr Daws said.
“All sheep will be more than comfortable. All will be able to eat, drink and lie down as they always can but there’ll be more space on the ship.”
When Dr Scrivener claps his hands, the sheep crowd together on the other side of the pen.
“We do that to check we have a third of the pen empty when they push themselves together,” he said.
“They don’t have the same personal space problem that humans have,” he said.
“If anyone looks at sheep in a paddock or on the banks of a dam, they lie on each other — that’s the way they behave.”
The farmer: ‘We’ve been let down’
Farmer Tony York said another live export controversy would make him question selling sheep that way. (ABC News: Dominique Schwartz)
Tony York has 650 sheep on the Al Messilah and is confident they will arrive safely.
“They are not going into the high-risk summer period and the trade has agreed to make reductions in stocking density,” Mr York, the President of WAFarmers, said.
The grain and sheep producer from Tammin, 180 kilometres east of Perth, relies on the live export trade for one-fifth of his income.
Unlike live cattle producers, most live sheep farmers do not rely entirely on the trade, but their “livestock and cropping are interconnected” and vitally important, Mr York said.
Nevertheless, he said if there were to be another mass death at sea such as happened on the Awassi Express, he would consider moving out of the live trade.
“I think we absolutely have to make sure that event never happens again,” Mr York said.
“I believe the public have certainly been very patient with the industry.
“And from a farmer’s perspective, we were putting a lot of faith in the regulations and the way the industry was managed and I think we’ve been let down.”
The anti-live trade movement
Dr Sue Foster is calling for “a cessation of all voyages to the Middle East in summer.”
The spokesperson for Vets Against Live Export said investigations into high mortality deaths by the industry regulator showed “heat stress often kicks in on day five or six out of Fremantle, so it doesn’t matter exactly when the sheep get to Kuwait”.
“In Australia, under domestic law, heat stress is an issue for every single sheep but the welfare laws applied to live export are completely different and the only issue is how many sheep die,” Dr Foster said.
“As long as they don’t die in numbers greater than 2 per cent both the Government and industry think that’s fine.
“I don’t think the Australian public thinks that’s fine.”
Protesters rally in Fremantle ahead of the Al Messilah’s journey to the Middle East carrying 68,000 live sheep. (ABC News: James Carmody)