A review into live sheep exports has recommended a major reduction in animals on ships bound for the Middle East during the dangerous hot months in the middle of the year.
At the same time, the federal government has foreshadowed tough new penalties – including 10-year jail terms – for companies that breach animal welfare rules.
The review, by respected livestock veterinarian Dr Michael McCarthy, calls for a major overhaul of the live sheep trade during the Middle Eastern summer.
Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud initiated the review after footage emerged showing almost 2,500 sheep dying from heat stress during a trip to the Middle East last year.
Mr Littleproud said the government would accept all 23 recommendations made by Dr McCarthy. Most of the recommendations would be implemented by the next northern summer.
“The live sheep export trade is in for significant change,” Mr Littleproud said.
Among the list of recommendations, Dr McCarthy says space for sheep on cargo ships should be increased by up to 39 per cent. This would significantly reduce the number of animals allowed on board.
"Dr McCarthy recommended a seismic shift from stocking density based on animal mortality to one based on animal welfare," Mr Littleproud said.
Exporters encouraged to upgrade boats
In the past, the Independent Regulator has used the sheep deaths as the indicator of animal welfare. It will now move towards a model that focuses on animal welfare, rather than mortality.
“Just because a sheep didn't die doesn't mean it was treated well,” Mr Littleproud said.
"The greater mortality is heat stress. Dr McCarthy has created a new model which goes towards addressing this deducing the probability of sheep with heat stress and ventilation and airflow on boats.”
The new formula means sheep numbers will have to drop by almost 30 per cent in the hottest months. As the heat increases, sheep numbers must decrease.
Mr Littleproud said the new model could encourage exporters to upgrade their boats.
"(It) could have the potential merit of giving exporters incentive to improve ventilation and airflow to increase their carrying capacity," he said.
Tough new penalties
Also, the reportable mortality level will be halved now from two to one per cent, which means if more than one per cent of sheep die it must be reported immediately and investigated.
Mr Littleproud will soon introduce a Bill increasing penalties and creating a new offence of profiting from poor animal welfare outcomes.
Under this offence, a director of a company could face 10 years prison or $2.1 million fine.
An individual convicted under the same offence would face 10 years and $420,000 fine.
For a company, the fine will be $4.2 million, three times the benefit gained, or 10 per cent of the company’s annual turnover, whichever is greater.
Under the current Australian Meat and Livestock Act, penalties will increase from the current five years prison and/or a $63,000 fine for an individual to eight years prison and/or $100,800 fine.
For a company the fine will be increased from $315,000 to $504,000.
Independent observers to monitor livestock
Mr Littleproud said independent observers will be a mandatory requirement on all ships carrying live exports – sheep and cattle – from Australia during the northern summer. The observers will report daily to the Independent Regulator.
The report also recommended the introduction of automated watering systems to help prevent heat stress.
By the 2019 Middle Eastern summer, ships must have automated environment monitoring equipment fitted in the pens.
Exporters welcomed the review, with the Australian Livestock Exporters' Council (ALEC) saying the industry would accept all of the changes announced.
"Industry accepts the move to broader, science-based animal welfare indicators on vessels. We will engage constructively with the Government in the development of these measures," ALEC chairman Simon Crean said.
However, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has indicated his party will phase out live exports if it wins government at the next election. Animal welfare groups are also calling for an end to live trade.
Mr Littleproud said the livelihoods of farmers throughout most of Australia depend on the live sheep trade, which provides 1800 jobs.
“We need to give certainty to these people,” he said.
For the full report and response to the recommendations, visit: agriculture.gov.au/LAE