The industry has been heavily scrutinised since April 2018, when footage was released showing the conditions onboard a vessel operated by export company Emmanuel Exports.
The footage showed overcrowded sheep enclosures, with many animals suffering from heat stress. It was later revealed more than 2,400 sheep died due to the soaring temperatures and cramped conditions on board.
Dr Holly Ludeman is now the public face of the live export industry – a veterinarian helping the industry improve animal welfare protocols and rebuild its image.
“I think pausing the trade during the summer months has reduced the highest risk period, where heat was the potential risk factor,” she told SBS News.
The vessel departing Fremantle this week is owned by Kuwait Livestock Transport and Trading (KLTT), and operated by Rural Export and Trading Western Australia (RETWA).
Dr Ludeman, who has been employed as a compliance officer with the embattled Emmanuel Exports since December 2018, said the industry had made major changes over the past year.
“There’s improved ventilation, independent auditors on all vessels, and we’ve demonstrated low mortality rates and good welfare outcomes,” she said.
“It’s a very different story on board than what has been portrayed in the media.”
Middle Eastern markets
The overwhelming majority of Australia’s live sheep exports are sent to the Middle East, a journey that can take up to three weeks.
Temperatures on board the vessel can far exceed those outside, which led to the ban during northern summer.
But the live export industry and its critics disagree when and if the moratorium should have been lifted.
“We would have liked to have been shipping a bit earlier, we thought we had a sound case to start shipping at the start of September,” Australian Live Exporters Council CEO Mark Harvey-Sutton said.
But the RSPCA believes it’s still too hot to start sending sheep to the Gulf.
“The evidence shows that the temperatures in the Middle East for the entire period between May and October, including those months, are far too hot for Australian sheep,” RSPCA’s Jed Goodfellow said.
“They’re acclimatised now to Australian winter and they will be sent into a furnace”.
The Federal government has commissioned multiple reviews into the industry since April 2018, primarily aimed at addressing the risk of heat stress.
A report by Dr Michael McCarthy, released in December 2018, made 23 recommendations, aimed at shifting the focus from mortality rates to mitigating the risk of heat stress.
Among those recommendations, accepted in full by the live export industry, were changes to ventilation, stocking density, and reducing the notifiable mortality rate from two to one per cent.
But critics of live exports remain unconvinced the industry has improved.
“The only additional measure that has any significance is a slight reduction in stocking density – that will do little to mitigate heat stress when the temperatures are so hot,” Dr Goodfellow said.
“Live exports to the Middle East should not occur between May and October, and in other times of the year we need to see further reductions in stocking densities.”
Sheep farming heartland
In Australia’s sheep farming heartland, family-run businesses have had to deal with the uncertainty.
The largest open-air sheep saleyard in the southern hemisphere is in Katanning, in WA’s Great Southern region.
“The money that comes from people buying those sheep in the Middle East flows through to our rural communities,” second-generation sheep farmer Bindi Murray said.
“(During the moratorium) we’ve been in a bit of pause. A lot of the systems and infrastructure, all the trucks and everything have stopped. So it’s great to get things moving again.”
Ms Murray said while the footage from onboard the Emmanuel Exports vessel was shocking, the industry has used it as an opportunity to improve practices throughout the supply chain.
“It's like these saleyards, it may be dirty, it may be smelly but there’s not the inherent cruelty that people see,” she said.
“There has been bad behaviour, so what we need to do is make sure that we’re continuously improving and doing live exports well.
A recent report commissioned by LiveCorp and Meat & Livestock Australia into Australian live sheep exports found more than a thousand people are employed full-time by the industry nation-wide, generating $100 million per annum in revenue over the past five years
The report claims that in 2018, the cessation of the live sheep trade during the northern hemisphere summer saw annual volumes of exported sheep nearly halve, from 2 million to 1.1 million.
“The trade is really important not just to our customers but also to our production sector and to communities like Katanning,” Ms Murray said.
Where do we go from here?
For now, both the live export industry and its critics will assess the impact of the moratorium on demand for Australian livestock in the Middle East.
“I don’t think (the moratorium) damaged our reputation, it has caused a pause in supply,” Mr Harvey-Sutton said.
“That has created a scenario where competitors are entering the market. We know that consignments have been sourced from Romania and South Africa (instead of Australia).
“(But) I don’t think Australia’s reputation as a supplier of livestock is damaged, we’ve been exporting there for 40 years.”
Animal rights groups say they’ll continue to demand accountability from exporters and push the federal government to release footage obtained by its newly-appointed observers.
“The RSPCA has always said that based on the evidence, the live sheep trade to the Middle East cannot be conducted to acceptable welfare standards in a way that still allows the industry to still be profitable,” Dr Goodfellow said.
“It is a business model that is built on animal suffering. When we see animal welfare conditions applied to this industry, it very soon becomes unfeasible.”