A controversial livestock carrier has finally berthed at Fremantle today. Dr Lynn Simpson assesses how this ship’s blighted voyage to the Middle East went so wrong.
Third berthing a charm? Will the animals finally be allowed to get off this time?
More importantly, can they stay off?
The Bahijah has just tied up today in Fremantle port for the third time in two weeks after a failed attempt to carry nearly 17,000 animals to Israel was thwarted by the Houthi rebels in Yemen. A well-understood risk to shipping through that passage since November last year.
The Bahijah left Fremantle on January 5, faltered on her intended course, and was ordered to return by the Australian government based on animal health and welfare concerns. I would add that health and welfare concerns for the crew sailing past Yemen, in a ship well plastered with the Israeli company name down her hull was well-founded too.
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I wouldn’t have been sleeping too well if I were them.
So far the remaining/ surviving animals have been on board for nearly 40 days, and are right back where they started.
An asinine application to continue sailing for a ridiculous additional 30 odd days, to access Israel via the Mediterranean, only after rounding the entire west coast of Africa was sensibly and commendably rejected by the Australian government on February 5.
The government released a 14-page document explaining the complexities and machinations of actions and considerations that brought them to their final ‘application to re-export’ rejection. I commend their transparency. It is time the world gets to see just how much oversight is involved in the planning of each and every live animal voyage. This highlights the risky nature of the live animal trade well, and justifies why the government is keen to phase it out. As such it is no wonder the chilled and frozen meat trade that most farmers actually do rely on is never in the news as a scandal of cruelty; these risks to animals and farming reputations simply do not exist.
Inside this document was one part I personally found telling. The government asked why the exporter did not execute its voyage Contingency Risk Management Plan (CRMP) to unload the animals in an alternative Middle Eastern country? A contingency one must assume was stated in the CRMP.
No one has to be a geopolitical analyst to know that at no time this year was that likely to be considered a credible plan if passing the Houthi embattled area was not possible.
Between my years at sea on these ships, and my time consulting with government on their export processes I have never understood how these exporter-proposed plans can be so ambiguous. The ones I have seen appear to have the robust quality of an abandoned ice slushie on a Middle Eastern summer’s day. CRMPs need to be worth the paper they are printed on. It is not good enough to essentially ‘pinky’ promise by email, that a person will source a missing piece of the voyage puzzle if required, of an appropriate, satisfactory, or applicable weasel-worded non-qualifiable component, to get a ship, her crew and the animals onboard out of a potentially life-threatening situation as needed. Usually at short notice.
When things hit the fan on such voyages, plans get made up on the run and operations and communications often get very loose to say the least. I and many others have had to sail with no official notification to at least one unapproved country to cover up for poor planning and provisions mid-voyage. No – CRMP is going to cover some required actions, but when you have thousands of animals running out of fodder, rules not only get bent but turned into balloon art.
Despite the exporters knowing since January 19 that the animals would be returning to Australia, arrangements to have them all removed from the ship have not yet eventuated.
The animals are still having to endure the conditions of life on a live export ship rather than an environment on land suitable to farm animals. The exporter/s have shown little if any regard to the best interests of these 17,000 animals by failing thus far to secure release and alternative land-based housing for them. These animals were left languishing onboard as not one, but two separate heat waves hit Fremantle. Keeping the remaining animals loaded assumably was the exporter’s choice, despite having set up ramps, organised trucks and unloaded several hundred cattle already in early February.
This is a live animal trade, the health and welfare is the paramount responsibility of the business. Any deviation from the importance of animal health and welfare in a live animal trade simply puts this entire trade into further disrepute and would make it all the more difficult for any industry or farming representative to defend it in any shape or form.
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Animal welfare for farming animals is not requesting that each animal has a pillow or a chew toy, it is protecting their health and well-being. In this case it is ensuring animals stay healthy enough to survive an arduous unnatural journey so that they can become a healthy part of the human food chain in an importing country.
Israel is a country that can import meat products by the way, Israel does not need to import animals live. This is a preference of few only. Israel is a developed nation with all the supermarket access and refrigeration that other developed countries have. A population of nearly 15m people are not relying on the numbers of live animals that dribble through the ports in questionable health each year on ever more dubious ships.
All transport is recognised to be inherently stressful to farm animals.
Animal welfare is often assessed on some pretty simple parameters:
- How many animals are effected
- How severe is the suffering
- What is the duration of the suffering.
Live export manages to tick all three boxes, often to an extreme and severe measure. Unnatural noises, movement, crowding, pathogen/germ spread, resting substrate, food and ever-changing environmental challenges such as temperatures and sea movement all cause stress. Animal stress is not like a human opening a bill and wondering how to pay, it is anxiety, depression, and fear of the unknown situation they find themselves in. A strange scary new world that they cannot escape.
During the course of the average long-haul live export voyage the animals face and experience a range of welfare outcomes from mild to severe. When I see veterinary reports like the ones so far released regarding the Bahijah stating “… animals were displaying normal behaviour” I have to ask myself on what planet is this normal? Normal considering their predicament? These are very loaded words, normal would mean they were foraging for food, choosing social groups to hang with, seeking relief from thermal discomfort, finding somewhere comfortable to rest, avoiding lying in deep manure if possible, breathing at rates below 35 breaths per minute.
One consolation for the animals on the Bahijah is that the weather near Fremantle is dry heat and not humid, many more would have died had the ship been lingering off somewhere more tropical. For the first time the trade mid-voyage has literally been within sight of the public. No longer out of sight out of mind as suits so many proponents of the trade. An eye-opener to many.
Is this current scandal going to be the final ‘nail’ in Australia’s live sheep trade? A trade that is experiencing a natural death from reduced shipping tonnage, reduced trade agreements and growing world condemnation.
Surely this sector of shipping cannot survive such blatant examples of what is amounting to animal cruelty and abuse. What other legal industries calmly discuss welfare in terms of ‘faecal jackets’ (the thickness of the coating of faeces an animal is covered in, especially cattle), or the depth of the ‘faecal pad’(how much shit are they living in)?
How many other shipping businesses have an acceptable mortality rate and crew that are trained to dismember mammalian bodies and throw them to the sea for disposal as part of normal duties? None, that’s how many.
As we watch and asses the animals come off the ship eventually, hopefully today, they truly will be able to tell their individual stories.
That story will entail how and why not to export live animals by sea.
For Lynn Simpson’s full archive of shocking exposés into the livestock trades, click here.