The live export trade carrying millions of sheep and cattle across the seas each year is plagued by “old” and “inferior” ships that are a threat to animal welfare, claims a leading shipping company.
Livestock carriers are a key part of the multibillion dollar live export industry, dominated by Australia, South America and Europe. In 2017, almost 2 billion animals were exported in a trade worth $21bn (£15bn), with a significant proportion travelling by sea.
But most of the ships are old car carriers or other former cargo ships, rather than purpose-built vessels that can meet higher standards of animal welfare, said Wellard, one of the world’s largest livestock exporters, based in Australia.
This week the Guardian’s Animals Farmed series is focusing on the global live animal export trade, which, despite welfare and disease concerns, has quadrupled over the last fifty years.
Nearly 2 billion animals a year are loaded onto trucks or ships and sent off to new countries on journeys that can take weeks.
Every day at least 5 million creatures are in transit, in a secretive global trade in live farm animals.
And those numbers are just the cross-border journeys. They do not include long journeys within countries, which are becoming more frequent due to a trend that has seen smaller slaughterhouses close down.
We’re taking a moment to focus on some of the implications of this global trade.
A spokesperson for the company, which shipped nearly 400,000 cattle in 2019, said: “The old converted vessels bring the standard of the whole industry down. If you’re using a ship that was originally built for another purpose, you’re compromising on your animal services when you convert it to a livestock vessel.
“The biggest threat to the global live export industry is old ships. They have inferior standards and livestock services and they are more prone to accidents and breakdowns. Those ships give a bad name to a legitimate industry.”
More than half of the 129 livestock carriers listed as active with a working automated tracking system on at least one marine website were built before the 1980s. “The livestock carrier fleet is one of the oldest sectors in the globally trading fleet with an average vessel age of 38 years old,” said Adam Kent, managing director of market analysts Maritime Strategies International (MSI). In comparison, the average age of a container ship is 13.
“Only the Laker fleet, trading on the freshwater Great Lakes, has an older average age,” he said.
“Given that around 80% of all livestock carriers are converted vessels, which were originally designed for another cargo, the relative investment in the sector is significantly below other ship types,” he added. Most ships were converted from general cargo or “roll on roll off” (RoRo) vessels, meaning ships that have been designed to carry wheeled cargo.
The Dutch company Vroon, which owns the subsidiary Livestock Express, is known as the “world’s biggest independent seaborne livestock carrier”, with a fleet of 13 purpose-built vessels. Around half its ships have a gross tonnage of 10,241 and can carry more than 4,600 heads of cattle.
Livestock Express managing director Paul Pistorius warned that converting old vessels into livestock carriers means making “compromises”.
“When converting a vessel, you must live with the original hull and machinery and furthermore you always need to make compromises during the conversion phase. History has shown that these compromises may lead to poor animal welfare outcomes.
“There are indeed a lot of old conversions and also recent conversions of old hulls. Unfortunately, many of these vessels don’t always meet the standards to which we believe livestock carriers should adhere,” he said.
Animal health and welfare concerns
The practice of transporting thousands of live animals (some ships carry more than 10,000 animals) across the sea for weeks at a time means attention must be paid to the welfare of animals. Older ships were not built for this purpose, which raises concerns.
The most common health risks for animals on ships are fatigue, heat stress, overcrowding and related injuries, and the spread of disease. Lynn Simpson, a former veterinarian on livestock export ships, has been a vocal critic of the long-distance ship trade. She’s witnessed cattle forced to stand on hard floors for weeks on end, sick, injured animals left to die, and sheep literally cooking from the inside with their “fat melted and like a translucent jelly”.
“Some animals are held on decks for as long as 40 days, living on hard decking of concrete and metal. They [the animals] are not built to cope with these environments,” said Simpson. She points out that the long time spent at sea makes it even more critical for ships to be well-adapted for animals to protect their health and welfare. “A truck is transporting from A to B, but a ship is really a floating feedlot. They are at sea for up to six weeks so it’s not just a small period of time. They [the animals] have to eat, sleep, drink and recover.”
“The live animal trade is not one where great fortunes are made. The unsuitability of the ships has created a lot of issues for the welfare of the animals. There has been a lot of concern about converted ships, which have a checkered history of inspection failings,” said Andrew Linington, former editor for the maritime trade union, Nautilus International.
In November the Queen Hind, a 40-year-old vessel owned by Romanian company MGM Marine, was carrying more than 14,000 sheep when it capsized en route from Romania. The 22 crew members were rescued but just 180 sheep survived.
Campaign groups said at the time that a major problem was that often vessels were not built for the journey. “They are old vessels that are converted to transport animals,” Francesca Porta from Eurogroup for Animals in Brussels told the New York Times.
That incident prompted Nautilus International to call for an investigation into converted livestock carriers, saying the industry must “learn safety lessons for keeping seafarers safe and improving animal welfare”.
“There’s a risk that in these long-distance transport there are major problems with animals overheating in highly humid, dirty conditions … where a vessel has been converted it will be less able to control bad conditions,” said a spokesperson from Compassion in World Farming.
Mortality figures in the export of livestock are largely unavailable as the majority of countries, aside from Australia and New Zealand, do not require them to be publicly reported. The International Maritime Organization only requires an investigation of casualties at sea if they led to the death or serious injury of a person, or serious damage to the ship or the marine environment. In Australia the government reports on any shipments where the mortality rate exceeds 1%. In August 2017, around 2,400 sheep died from heat stress on a ship sent from Australia to the Middle East.
For Europe, the only available mortality figures are from media reports on major incidents. In 2015, Jordan rejected a shipment of 13,000 sheep from Romania because 40% of the animals were dead. A veterinary inspection at port found that it was not disease that caused the high mortality rate, but a failure to provide adequate food or water on the eight-day trip.
Simpson said the mortality rates were likely to be higher in other regions not reporting figures. “The ships I was on 10 years ago carried 10,000 cattle for 20-day voyages and if you lost 15 animals I would say that was average. When they were travelling out of South America, the crew told me the same ships would have 14,000 cattle and would lose 300–500 animals in a voyage.
“They don’t care about animal welfare. It is just about numbers, which would be fine if we were talking about cans of soup.”
A large number of livestock-carrying ships are also sailing under flags of convenience with poor reputations for ship safety. Out of the 129 ships listed as active, 52 are flying flags from countries currently blacklisted by the port inspection body the Paris MOU, which conducts more than 17,000 inspections on ships every year in ports around the world.
In addition, 10 of the companies that own or manage converted vessels built before 1975 are listed as “low or very low-performing” by the European Maritime Shipping Agency.