Debate erupts over 'horrific' plan for animals stranded in heatwave off Aussie coast

Thousands of animals that have spent more than 26 days at sea remain in limbo and stranded off the coast of Western Australia as the state endures a searing heatwave.

About 16,500 sheep and cattle are packed into the MV Bahijah, which departed for the Middle East on January 5 then was ordered by the federal government to abandon its voyage on January 20 due to the Houthis rebel attacks in the Red Sea.

It has since returned to Australian waters, with authorities scrambling to formulate a plan to quarantine the livestock. At the same time, animal activists fear for their safety. "[They're] knee-deep in their own waste with high ammonia levels, poor ventilation. They're stressed and fatigued," Stop Live Export's Rebecca Tapp told The Project on Wednesday.

Thousands of animals, mostly sheep, are now facing an even longer voyage. Source: ABC
Thousands of animals, mostly sheep, are now facing an even longer voyage. Source: ABC

Why are the animals being held on the ship?

When the ship returned to Australia, biosecurity concerns meant the animals could not be offloaded. "While they do clean it as well as they can there is still some risk that disease could come back off that ship,"John Hassell from the WA Farmers Federation told the Channel 10 program.

"These are complex decisions that must balance Australian biosecurity, export legislation, animal welfare considerations and the requirements of our international trading partners," a spokesman from the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry said.

Some may be re-exported despite concerns for welfare

The Department has said the exporter had applied to unload some animals before re-exporting those remaining aboard the vessel via a longer sea route. "The department is assessing this application as a priority, including working closely with our trading partners to ensure any decision to re-export the animals would be supported by the intended market," a spokesman said.

Chief Science Officer Dr Suzanne Fowler told The Project the plan to re-export some of the cattle and sheep is "horrific".

"The animals are no doubt already suffering and to consider leaving them on the ship for another 30 plus days on an even longer journey is definitely not in the best interest of those animals," she said.

According to the ABC, on Thursday morning the ship berthed at Fremantle Port, with some of the animals on board expected to be offloaded this morning.

The vessel has berthed at Fremantle Port. Source: ABC
The vessel has berthed at Fremantle Port. Source: ABC

Federal member for Fremantle Josh Wilson said there were serious animal welfare concerns about the exporter's plan to resume its journey with some of the animals.

"That would perhaps be another 30 to 33 days at sea, instead of a 15-day voyage," he told 6PR Perth. "You've got sheep on a stinking hot ship for 60 days - it's pretty hard to think that that accords with the animal welfare standards that Australians expect to be applied."

The Australian Alliance for Animals raised concerns about the exporter's application for a new voyage, saying it would be the "height of recklessness" to subject the animals to more days at sea. It's expected to take about 33 days and circumnavigate the African continent to access Jordan via the Suez Canal in a bid to avoid the Middle East conflict zone.

"These animals have already endured 27 days at sea - that's almost a month of standing and lying in their own faeces, weathering heat and humidity in tight quarters," policy director Jed Goodfellow said.

Aussies assured the animals are 'comfortable'

Hassell told The Project the animals are "comfortable" and "content" while the department said the exporter's veterinarian on the ship was monitoring the livestock and liaising with the department.

"All reports to date indicate there are no signs of any significant health or welfare concerns with the livestock on board," the spokesman said.

Dr Beth Cookson, Australia’s Chief Veterinary Officer added they are focussed on achieving an optimal outcome for the health and wellbeing of the livestock on board", while also "preserving Australia’s pristine biosecurity status".

"The exporter’s registered veterinarian is on board the vessel and is recording details of the health and welfare of the livestock," she said. "While we have found those reports are encouraging, the department has also engaged veterinarians to travel to the vessel and review conditions on board for additional due diligence."

Fowler has said it is integral for independent vets to get on board to do a separate assessment, saying the current vet is "industry paid for". "Just because there are no overt signs of animals dying does not mean the animal's welfare isn't compromised," she said.

with AAP

Do you have a story tip? Email:

You can also follow us on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter and YouTube.