Animal welfare groups say shocking conditions shown in footage of the Australian live export ship Awassi Express in which more than 2,000 sheep died are not uncommon and have been repeatedly reported to the federal regulator.
The footage, filmed covertly by trainee navigator Faisal Ullah and released to 60 Minutes and Animals Australia, shows sheep crammed into dirty pens, panting from heat stress and leaping over each other to access food.
It also shows carcasses piled up and in one case thrown overboard, as well as footage of newborn lambs being caught in the bog, despite the Australian Standards for the Export of Livestock (ASEL) banning the transport of lambs and pregnant ewes on export ships to the Middle East between the warm months of May to October.
Ullah said crew members also slit the throats of lambs and threw them overboard.
It is the first time footage from onboard an Australian live export ship has been published. Industry groups, the federal Department of Agriculture, and the agriculture minister, David Littleproud, said that conditions on the voyage were shocking and unacceptable.
But livestock veterinarian Dr Sue Foster, a spokeswoman for Vets Against Live Export, said the cramped conditions, severe heat stress, and boggy pens “happens every time one of these ships go the Middle East in summer,” and have been reported by whistleblowers in the past.
“If we look at the footage that everyone’s all carrying on about … that ship is stocked according to Australian law,” Foster told Guardian Australia. “That is how every ship goes out of Fremantle.”
The voyage of the Awassi shown in Ullah’s footage left Fremantle on 1 August with 63,804 sheep on board for Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
About 2,400 sheep, or 3.76% of the total load, died on route, above the mandatory reportable mortality rate of 2%.
A routine investigation by the department found the main cause of death was heat stress.
Foster said heat stress was “unavoidable” on voyages to the Middle East in summer, because high humidity frequently pushes the wet bulb temperatures inside the pens to the mid 30s, above the ASEL threshold of 30.6C.
Littleproud called for the department to conduct an urgent investigation after being shown the footage on Wednesday, but has not barred the Awassi from sailing again provided it meets a range of new stricter conditions.
He told 60 Minutes the footage was “quite harrowing; to be honest it shocked me to the core.”
The ship was due to leave Fremantle with 65,000 sheep and 250 cattle on Monday.
The department wrote to Emanuel Exports on Friday saying it would not sail unless it reduced its stocking density by more than 15%, submitted a proposal to increase ventilation, explained how it would improve access to food and water, and allowed an independent observer on board to provide daily reports and images
“So the line in the sand has to be drawn now,” Littleproud told 60 Minutes. “And I’m committed to making sure we do that and put those sheep, if we do go on Monday morning in the safest possible hands I possibly can.”
Emanuel Exports has not commented on the investigation beyond a statement released on Thursday saying high mortality events were “devastating” and it had reduced stocking densities on subsequent voyages by 15%. It was expected to release a second statement on Sunday night.
The Australian Live Exporters Council, which is managing media responses for Emanuel, has defended the overall conduct of the industry but said there had been “clear breaches of standards” in this case.
“Clearly there’s no walking away from this footage,” chief executive Simon Westaway told 60 Minutes. “I mean, there’s clear breaches of standards there.”
Westaway added that Australia had the best live export standards in the world.