A ship carrying around 14,000 sheep and 2,000 cattle is marooned off the coast of Australia in sweltering heat after it was forced to abandon a trip through the Red Sea, causing outcry from people concerned about the animals’ welfare.
The vessel left Australia on Jan. 5 for Israel, where it was to unload, but diverted from its course in mid-January due to the threat of attack by Yemen’s Houthi militia before being ordered home by the Australian government.
The animals are now in limbo and could be discharged in Australia, where biosecurity rules would require them to quarantine, or sent back to sea for a month-long journey to Israel around Africa, avoiding the Red Sea, industry officials and the government said.
The stranding underscores the widening impact of militia strikes on ships in the Red Sea, the main maritime route between Europe and Asia, which have disrupted global trade.
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It also underscores the risk to Australia’s live animal export industry, which sends hundreds of thousands of animals to the Middle East each year.
Farm and exporter groups say the animals on board the MV Bahijah are in good health but with temperatures close to 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit), animal welfare advocates are appalled.
The animals’ ordeal shows the live export trade is “rotten to its core,” said Josh Wilson, member of parliament for Fremantle, where the ship was loaded.
“What is being contemplated is a 60-day voyage for 14,000 sheep on a stinking hot, and literally stinking, metal vessel,” he told 10 News.
“It’s very hard to imagine that that is consistent with the animal welfare standards that Australians expect to be applied to Australian animals.”
The agriculture ministry said it had seen no evidence of significant health concerns with the livestock, and was working with the exporter and industry bodies to ensure biosecurity and animal welfare standards are maintained.
The exporter, Israeli firm Bassem Dabbah Ltd, has asked the Australian government for permission to load more fodder and veterinary supplies and sail for Israel around Africa, said Geoff Pearson, head of livestock at industry body WA Farmers.
Reuters was unable to contact Bassem Dabbah. The ship’s manager, Korkyra Shipping, did not respond to a request for comment.
Canberra said the ship had applied to unload some animals before sailing with the remainder.
Australia is a major exporter of live animals, shipping more than half a million sheep and half a million cattle last year.
Most cattle go to Asian markets such as Indonesia and Vietnam but the Middle East is by far the biggest destination for Australian sheep.
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Israel is a key market, receiving 86,100 sheep worth $6.5 million and 10,848 cattle worth $14 million from Australia in the first three months of last year, trade data show.
Australia’s Labor government has pledged to outlaw exports of live sheep in coming years but faces angry pushback from farm groups who say this would put people out of work and destroy farming communities.
New Zealand banned exports of live animals after a vessel carrying more than 5,800 cattle sank in rough weather in 2020, leaving dozens of sailors missing and dead animals floating in the sea.
(Reuters – Reporting by Peter Hobson; Editing by Stephen Coates)