Sheep being transported to Kuwait from Fremantle Harbour in Australia on June 16, 2020. Credit - Paul Kane—Getty Images
Rising insecurity in the Red Sea is having far-reaching consequences felt around the world—not just by humans. As a result of the escalating conflict primarily spurred by Houthi attacks on ships attempting to pass through the waterway, some 15,000 Australian sheep and other livestock have been stuck aboard one vessel for weeks. Their fate remains up in the air, neither allowed to reach their destination in the Middle East nor disembark back home due to biosecurity concerns.
Since Monday, the MV Bahijah has been anchored about 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) off Fremantle port on Australia’s west coast, carrying a herd of cattle that’s causing a headache to both its exporter and local authorities and is now the subject of animal welfare concerns in the face of a looming heat wave.
The carrier, which set sail from Australia for Jordan on Jan. 5, was ordered by Australian authorities to turn back on Jan. 20. But upon its return, the cattle have not been allowed to be removed from the ship due to Australia’s strict biosecurity regulations, which ban livestock from rejoining their herd and require them to be slaughtered after disembarking to ensure they do not carry diseases onto shore. (Australia has so far managed to prevent the outbreak of diseases that have affected sheep and cattle globally, such as foot-and-mouth disease, scrapie, and sheep pox.)
The cattle’s Israeli-based exporter has applied to unload some of the livestock and re-export the remaining animals elsewhere, according to the Australian Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, which said that authorities are reviewing the application. The Western Australian Farmers Federation advocates that the sheep be re-exported through a safer shipping route, while the Australia branch of animal rights group the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is objecting to the plan, citing welfare concerns in letting the sheep spend even longer on the ship before they would reach their final destination.
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“They have already endured sustained heat and humidity, weeks of living in their own waste, crowding, unfamiliar environment and volatile movement of the ship. To subject them to what could end up being a total of 60 plus days of this is inarguably unconscionable,” RSPCA Australia said in a statement, calling instead for the sheep to be offloaded.
In 2020, 56,000 sheep bound for the Middle East were initially forced to be slaughtered in Australia because of a trade ban that kicked in while the shipment was delayed—though an exemption granted by the Agriculture Department a week later saw some of the sheep re-exported.
“These are complex decisions that must balance Australian biosecurity, export legislation, animal welfare considerations and the requirements of our international trading partners,” the Agriculture Department said in a statement on Wednesday, describing the cattle on board as “high quality Australian animals” that “would be subject to strict biosecurity controls while in Australia.”
Animal rights advocates fear that the cattle will not survive an impending heat wave—temperatures in Western Australia are expected to exceed 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit)—and say that the stranded sheep underscore the problems of the livestock trade.
“This awful scenario is always a risk in the inherently cruel live sheep trade,” Josh Wilson, a Labor Party member of parliament representing Fremantle, wrote in a post on X.
Fremantle Mayor Hannah Fitzhardinge expressed concern that residents would be affected by the smell emanating from the sheep. “The foul smell that will wash over our city once this ship docks will be a very tangible reminder of the inherent cruelty of this unnecessary practice,” she wrote in a post on Facebook. “The City of Fremantle has advocated since 2010 that the live animal export trade should come to an end.”
According to the Fremantle Ports’ 2022 annual report, the port handles 100% of Australia’s live sheep exports by sea (and 100% is headed to the Middle East), which in 2022 totaled 460,000 heads—a figure that has been steadily declining since 2018, thanks to a national commitment to transition away from exporting live sheep by sea.
In October, an independent panel appointed by the Agriculture Department submitted a report to the government with suggested mechanisms and a timeframe to phase out the export of live sheep by sea, though authorities noted that the transition will not take place during the current parliamentary term.
Western Australia Premier Roger Cook said on Tuesday that he believed the welfare of the animals was still “fairly high” and that his government would help remove some of the sheep when the ship docks, ABC reported.
“My understanding is their initial aim is to at least get some off so that they can look after the welfare of those animals,” Mr Cook said. “But we’ll need to quarantine those animals because obviously they’re coming from overseas so there are biosecurity measures in place to make sure they don’t present with any diseases.”
Tensions triggered by the Israel-Hamas war between allies of both sides have exacerbated in recent weeks, including the Houthi rebels in Yemen launching a series of commercially costly attacks on vessels in the Red Sea, only to be met with retaliatory attacks from the U.S. and the U.K. Analysts warn that the shipping disruptions spell serious repercussions for global trade.
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