The ban on exporting live sheep from Australia to the Middle East could be extended to the end of September due to the risk of heat stress under a proposal from federal regulators.
If approved it would extend the three-month ban on live sheep export to the region, which began in June in response to public backlash to whistleblower footage of a voyage on which more than 2,000 sheep died.
The June-August ban was announced by the Department of Agriculture in May after the live export industry had already announced it would enforce a self-imposed moratorium on shipping during those months in an effort to “reset” the trade.
Extending the ban to 30 September was one of three options put forward by the department as part of a public consultation process into managing the live trade in September and October.
A second option proposes extending the ban to 30 September for destinations in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea, like Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates; while the ban on trade to ports in the Red Sea would only be extended to 22 September.
The department stated the third option, which would see the ban lifted on 1 September, was not preferred.
It is yet to determine whether the export to the Middle East will be allowed in high-risk months from 2020 onward.
The department said that based on the available evidence on average temperatures and sheep mortality rates in September, it “believes this option [of resuming trade on 1 September] presents a higher risk of heat stress event, and does not prefer this option”.
“The options take into account evidence that demonstrates September remains as hot, or hotter than June and has historically experienced the third highest average monthly mortality rates after July and August,” it said.
The average mortality rate for sheep on live export ships to the Middle East in September, calculated from voyage reports logged with parliament for shipments between 2013 and 2017, is just over 0.8%. The month with the highest average mortality rate was August, with 1.25%, followed by July with just under 1%.
The deadly voyage on the Awassi Express in August 2017, which triggered the review of Australia’s heat stress guidelines and the ban on summer voyages, had a mortality rate of 3.76%, or 2,400 sheep.
The RSPCA says that allowing the live sheep trade to resume in September was not supported by the department’s own evidence on the impact of heat stress, as set out in the draft Heat Stress Risk Assessment (HSRA) report released in December.
The final HSRA report was given to government in May but has not been publicly released.
The RSPCA’s senior policy officer, Dr Jed Goodfellow, urged the department not to be swayed against its own advice and lift the ban on 1 September.
Goodfellow said he was disappointed that none of the proposed options suggested extending the ban into October.
“Allowing exports to continue during this high-risk period will mean subjecting thousands of winter-acclimatised Australian sheep to prolonged periods of heat stress and suffering in sweltering Middle Eastern conditions,” he said.
The Australian Veterinary Association has warned that the sheep would be at risk of heat stress on live export ships from May to October, and the RSPCA has previously called for live export to be banned for the full six months.
“The evidence to-date is clear – sheep will suffer if exported during September and October, the same way they suffer in June, July and August, under the very same conditions that finally forced the industry to implement a voluntary halt,” Goodfellow said.
“Any decision to continue the export of sheep in September and October is placing profits ahead of animal welfare.”
The proposed options for regulating the September and October live sheep export trade is open for public comment until 22 July.