Live-export cattle deaths spark outrage

Posted by Nicole Eckersley on 25th March 2010

The deaths of 266 cattle on the live-export ship MV Ocean Shearer, confirmed yesterday by Wellard Group managing director Steve Meerwald, has sparked outrage among animal protection groups.

More than 16,000 cattle left Fremantle for Egypt on February 23, along with around 40,000 sheep.  The 266 deaths translate to a mortality rate of 1.6%, exceeding the legal acceptable limit of 1% by over 100 head of cattle. According to Australian government statistics, 923 cattle and 32,000 sheep died on live export ships in 2009.

The Federal Government has launched an investigation into the deaths, with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority and the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service taking the lead roles.

The cause of the deaths is presently unknown, although Mr Meerwald told The West Australian that the vessel experienced several delays, and that the cattle were believed to have suffered from respiratory difficulties.  He also ruled out problems with the ship’s feed, water or ventilation systems.

The MV Ocean Shearer, previously the MV Stella Deneb, was built in 1980 and refurbished in 2002. It was purchased by Wellard in 2009, and is often listed as the world’s largest livestock transport vessel.

The booming Australian live export trade has drawn continuous criticism from animal welfare groups, regarding the number of animal deaths at sea, and also regarding the uncertain fate of Australian livestock once they reach their destinations.

“This shipment is a disaster for the live export industry. These animals suffered and died on one of their flagship vessels which again proves that the inherent risks of exporting live animals by sea can never be overcome,” said Animals Australia executive director Glenys Oogjes.

“We don’t know why these animals died as yet, but we do know that they suffered and died unnecessarily. It is outrageous to be exporting live animals to Egypt when they have shown that they will import chilled meat from Australia if we don’t provide them with the alternative of live animals.”

Mr Meerwald told ABC’s PM that the cattle deaths were an isolated incident.

“To put in context we’ve moved 7,000 cattle on one shipment from Darwin to Indonesia with two ports of discharge, with zero losses. So, it just emphasises the fact that this is not a common run of the mill that’s going to happen every time; these are the sort of results we’re going to accept. We won’t accept them,” he said.

“We need to have them fully investigated and make sure that we understand what’s happened and put in place measures to ensure that anything that could have been done different is done different.”

In addition to protesting animal cruelty, RSPCA CEO Heather Neil decried the effect that live animal export has had on the Australian meat industry.

“The absurd part of this whole situation is that while these cattle were suffering at sea, Australian workers in our meat processing industry were being laid off due to a shortage of animals,” she said.

“Every animal we send overseas for slaughter takes Australian jobs with it and for little economic reward. Last year our beef exports were worth five times more to the Australian economy than live cattle exports.”