Big changes to the regulation of live sheep and cattle export voyages signalled this week in the release of a comprehensive Federal Government review have drawn mixed reactions from industry and animal welfare groups.
The Federal Government’s Department of Agriculture and Water Resources (DAWR) accepted all 49 recommendations from the final report on the Review of Australian Standards for the Export of Livestock: Sea Transport (ASEL) and will implement them this year.
Key changes include the reduction of stocking density for sheep by about 30 per cent and the introduction of a heat stress risk assessment for all voyages that cross the equator, not just those destined for the Middle East.
Some agricultural industry groups think the new regulations threaten the future of the live export.
The Australian Livestock Exporters’ Council (ALEC) has welcomed the ASEL recommendations, which it said provided certainty.
However, the new rules do not go far enough, according to the RSPCA.
Over and under-regulation
In Western Australia, where sheep producers rely heavily on the live trade, the Pastoralists and Graziers Association (PGA) said the new rules could jeopardise the viability of the live export industry.
PGA president Tony Seabrook urged Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud not to rush the introduction of the changes, warning the industry could be “regulated out of existence”.
Mr Seabrook said live sheep exporters were already facing a self-imposed hiatus for three months from June this year.
“It won’t be very long before the principles of these companies start making the decision that it isn’t worthwhile,” he said.
“You don’t need to do a great deal of damage to one or the other of these exporters and we won’t have a trade.”
Australia’s largest and oldest animal welfare charity said the review falls short on key animal welfare issues.
RSPCA senior policy officer Jed Goodfellow said the ASEL recommendations fell short of what was needed.
“The final report falls short on the big issues that will make a real difference to animal welfare, like stocking densities that actually allow the animals to lie down at the same time over these 3-4 week-long journeys, rather than expecting them to ‘time-share’ the floor space,” he said.
Dr Goodfellow maintains animal welfare and live exports are fundamentally incompatible.
Federal shadow agriculture minister Joel Fitzgibbon has flagged a five-year phase out of the trade if Labor wins the upcoming federal election.
“The science is telling us that it is just not possible for the sector to continue while also meeting science-based, community expectations on animal welfare,” he said.
Dropping stock density
One of the big changes in the new standards is the introduction of an allometric approach to sheep stocking density.
Under the old standards, a certain amount of pen space was provided to each animal based on weight.
The allometric approach considers the animals’ ability to lay down and have comfortable space, meaning there will be about 30 per cent more space for sheep aboard live export vessels.
This, of course, means there will be roughly 30 per cent less sheep on each voyage.
DAWR already ordered the reduction of stocking density by 17.5 per cent after Animals Australia released harrowing footage aboard the Emmanuel Exports vessel Awassi Express in 2017.
Rick Wilson, the federal member for the seat of O’Connor in southern WA’s sheep heartlands, said the 17.5 per cent reduction had already yielded outstanding results.
Emmanuel Exports compliance officer and veterinarian Holly Ludeman said exporters would continue to put forward scientific evidence to help make regulations workable for the industry.
“There are, obviously, commercial concerns for the additional space requirements,” she said.
“ASEL should be a model that can be continually reviewed based on outcomes, and we should be able to go back to the regulator with evidence if any of these [regulations] need updating once they’re implemented.”
The live export industry now awaits the finding from a review into the current heat stress risk assessment (HSRA) model.
Any changes to that heat stress risk assessment model will now be applied to all voyages that cross the equator.
Kibosh on cattle
The new regulations also make the first mention of the cattle industry being impacted by the live sheep export saga.
One of the new regulations will block the export of European, or Bos Taurus, cattle from below the 26th parallel being sourced for export on voyages that cross the equator for six months of the year from May 1 to August 31.
South-west WA livestock producer and cattle exporter Geoff Pearson said that overall the impacts would be minimal.
But he said the changes will still hit the hip-pockets of some producers, especially during times of drought when large numbers of cattle are exported to keep the domestic market from flooding.
“Fortunately this drought has fallen at the right time, if you want to call it that, [and] we’ve been able to shift some large numbers [domestically],” he said.
The RSPCA’s Dr Goodfellow described the report as a missed opportunity for industry.
“We are particularly disappointed to see that the final report has backtracked on stocking density reductions proposed for cattle,” he said.
“The cattle industry should be using this as an opportunity to gets its house in order, not pushing back against these very modest improvements.