‘We don’t look at the cargo or animal welfare’: Grisly deaths of 1,800 shipped cows fuel calls for live animal export ban

Even in normal times, live animals are considered cargo, and a ship full of sheep is more or less treated the same as one full of wool sweaters as far as most port authorities and shipping industry regulators are concerned. “We don’t look at the cargo or animal welfare,” said Maarten Vlag, secretary of the Paris maritime coalition that oversees ports from the U.K. to Russia. “We look if the ship is overloaded because that affects seaworthiness, but it makes no difference if it’s 10,000 containers or 10,000 animals.”

Meanwhile, thousands of livestock have been lost at sea. This spring, in addition to the cattle on the Elbeik, another 800 bulls on a ship to Turkey also had to be put down. Last year, nearly 6,000 cattle and more than 40 crew members died when their ship lost an engine and sank off the coast of Japan. In 2019, 14,000 sheep drowned in a shipping accident in a Romanian port, a livestock carrier caught fire while berthed in Greece, and another ran aground near Turkey.

The ordeal of the cattle on the Elbeik was so horrific that Spain’s agriculture ministry referred the case to prosecutors at the national court. The ship’s owner, Ibrahim Maritime Ltd., couldn’t be reached after several phone attempts and didn’t respond to text messages through a representative in Lebanon. 

In the EU, veterinary inspectors at the ports check vessels to make sure they’re fit for animal transport. They also approve the loading of animals onto the ships. The report for the European Parliament’s transportation committee found that port inspectors and veterinarian authorities don’t share a communication platform. Veterinary authorities don’t seem to use the database for vessel deficiencies and “therefore approve very substandard vessels to carry live animals,” it found.

If the animals get sick, there may not be anyone to tend to them. Only Australia requires veterinarians on board if the voyage is expected to take longer than 10 days. The EU is considering a similar rule. Animal welfare advocates say there should be vets on all voyages. Even if the trip is supposed to be swift, delays happen — and the global pandemic has only made them worse. 

Meanwhile, Australia has suspended its independent oversight of live animal shipping. In addition to the veterinary requirement, the government has since 2018 placed observers aboard on long journeys to ensure animals have adequate water, feed and ventilation. Out of concern for Covid risks and other logistical considerations, agriculture secretary Andrew Metcalfe told legislators that observers probably won’t be back for at least another year. 

“This is an inherently risky trade with no transparency,” said Shatha Hamade, legal counsel for Animals Australia, which has also had to suspend its own in-person animal welfare investigations this year. “Now regulators are back to a system where they’re checking up on the industry from computer screens and paperwork.”

Still, Australia is the only country that requires animal exporters to have in place a traceable supply chain that tracks livestock from the moment when they get on the ships all the way to the overseas slaughterhouses to ensure they are handled and ultimately, killed, humanely.

That level of standard raises costs substantially for Australian exporters, said John Klepec, executive chairman of Wellard Ltd. The Australian publicly listed company got out of the animal export business two years ago because it had become unprofitable and is now exclusively chartering its purpose-built livestock carriers.

“It’s not a level playing field,” said Klepec. “We’re competing against ships from developing countries that don’t face the same standards. They can put as many animals on that can fit. We have to bear the brunt of the extra costs of regulation.”

During the pandemic, maritime inspections of livestock carriers have fallen more than 30%, according to a Bloomberg analysis of publicly available data. Many countries haven’t allowed inspectors to board ships because of Covid concerns, said Vlag of the European maritime agency. Even so, livestock carriers continue to face rates of detention far higher than vessels used for other industries. In Asian and European ports, some 9% of ships carrying animals in 2020 had deficiencies severe enough to delay their departure — more than double the rate for the next-biggest offenders.

Because there’s very little public information about the health of the animals on board, experts look to the conditions of the boat as a partial proxy, said Sue Foster, a veterinarian and spokeswoman for Vets Against Live Exports. “If the mechanics on board a ship aren’t working properly, it can interfere with food and watery delivery or whether the ship is ventilated properly so the animals don’t get heat stressed.”

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