Ships of Shame

by Morna Wood
The following article appeared in New Vegetarian and Natural Health in March, 1997.


On August 23, 1996 , the cargo ship, Uniceb - en route from Fremantle to Jordan - burst into flames soon after an explosion in the engine room. 640 km (400 miles) north-east of the Seychelles , the crew abandoned ship with the loss of one human life.

Cast adrift on the Indian Ocean , the cargo of 67,000 closely confined and panic-stricken sheep was abandoned to suffer the horrors of heat stroke, suffocation, or prolonged death by burning or drowning. The 20,884 ton Uniceb, with its eight cargo decks, had shipped 5 million sheep annually to destinations in the Middle East over the last 14 years, including Jordan , the United Arab Emirates , Saudi Arabia , Oman and Bahrain .

Earlier, the International Transport Federation (ITF) had been advised of tensions between the crew of the Uniceb and the owner's representative on board. While in Fremantle a crewman with a broken collar bone approached the Australian Maritime Union "visibly shaken but too terrified to tell what had happened". The ITF reported that the Uniceb crew were not being paid, that they and their crew were sleeping on deck with the livestock. The Uniceb subsequently slipped out of Fremantle before conditions on board could be properly investigated by the Australian Maritime Authority.

The Uniceb disaster was not an isolated one, nor was it wholly unexpected. Since 1980 there have been ten disasters claiming the lives of 191,500 sheep. These include the 12,000 sheep ground when the Shaddia sank in the Red Sea in 1980. That same year 40,000 sheep died in the fire on board the Farid Fares, and in 1985, 15,000 died from heat exhaustion on an Australian ship berthed at Jeddah. In 1990 10,000 sheep on the Cormo Express died from lack of ventilation.

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Livestock carriers, most of which are former bulk carriers nearing the end of their seagoing lives, are the most primitive of the world's commodity vessels according to the ITF. Among them, the many so-called flag of convenience ships are registered in tax havens like Panama and Liberia - and Third World countries - to avoid international shipping standards and safety regulations. Under the International Convention of Shipping Standards, accident investigations are the responsibility of the ship's port of registration, absolving the Australian industry and authorities of obligations in this area.

Not surprisingly, these flag of convenience ships, like the once Italian - and later Panamanian - registered Uniceb, have low safety standards. Inexperienced crew, poor maintenance (particularly of engine rooms) and the huge heat-generating compost heaps of dried fodder combine to create a serious risk of fire. The financially ruthless business of livestock export is a hazardous one for all passengers, both animal and human.

To their credit, the South African government banned the importation of live sheep in 1995 because of the high mortality rates in transit, stating that, "The transportation of meat in live form is archaic and inhumane." Western Australian government statistics show that about 100,000 export sheep per year (300 sheep per day) die as a result of refusal to feed, bacterial infection, stress and injury. According to the RSPCA, mortality rates reach 20% in the heat of the Middle Eastern summer. Another 150,000 sheep die each year in the Middle Eastern feedlots.

Merino wethers (castrated rams) and ewe - as well as merino cross animals - form the bulk of the live sheep trade. Merinos crossed with British meat breed rams produce first crossed lambs. These animals are then crossed again with short wool rams to produce second cross, high-quality meat lambs. Some of these first and second crossed sheep end up being exported.

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According to Christine Townend in her book, Pulling the Wool, mortality and weight-loss occur throughout the operation. Suddenly removed from their familiar paddock environments, the disoriented sheep find themselves jostled through sale yards and trampled in roaring trucks. Sheep may travel for 2,000 km and be deprived of food and water for up to four and a half days before arriving shocked and exhausted at huge feedlots near the ports. Here, for five to ten days, they are 'conditioned' to the denatured pellet food which constitutes rations on board ship. Some suffer from diarrhoea in response to the pellet food while others refuse to eat and starve.

The vast carriers that awaits them carry up to 125,000 animals on cargo decks arranged in open tiers. Loading may take two 16-hour days and unloading, three. In 1982, animal welfare observers witnessed workers kicking sheep repeatedly and throwing them around corners. As revealed on recent Animal Liberation video footage, the risk of injury is high when the frantic sheep pile over each other and fall on the metal stairways which are slippery with the urine and excrement of other animals.

The freshly shorn sheep are exposed to the elements on the upper levels, and those below (and their feed) can become soaked in the urine and faeces falling from above. Crowded into pens so tightly that they can barely move, only some of the sheep can lie down - or reach the feed trough - at the same time. On the lower decks, some sheep have eventually asphyxiated because of the high levels of ammonia produced by the excrement. 'Shrink' and 'dry feeding' refer to the animals that become emaciated and starve to death in response to the trauma of the three to six week voyage.

Stress and overcrowding encourage disease outbreaks, both on the ship and in the Middle Eastern feedlots. No veterinarian is on board to attend the injured or diseased animals. The huge numbers of sheep, most in semi- darkness, make individual attention impossible in any case. An Australian Bureau of Animal Health report in 1983 noted lines of sheep observed to be lame or blind on unloading "probably due to laminitis and keratosis respectively... When outbreaks of sheep pox and rinderpest occur (in the flocks) large numbers of Australian animals are infected."

Under the constraints of the Islamic religion animals are killed in accordance with Halal slaughter. It is obligatory that the slaughterer say a prayer as he kills the animal, that the animal bleed to death facing Mecca and that it is alive when its throat is cut. Pre-stunning is not a requirement in the Middle East as it is here, nor is there any requirement that imported Australian sheep be killed only at an abattoir. Consequently, anyone can kill their own meat animal as they wish. Eye witnesses report that some sheep have their throats ineptly cut in the gutters. Weak arrivals - considered unlikely to survive long after the journey - may be slaughtered immediately in this way.

Inside the Middle Eastern abattoirs the situation is no better. According to an RSPCA report the sheep are dragged individually to the top of the pile of dead and dying animals and their throats are cut. The entire operation being "conducted in a welter of blood", unacceptable by Australian standards "on the grounds of cruelty and lack of hygiene." There are reports of animals having their tendons cut - even their legs cut off - to bring them down. Depending on the precision of the slaughterer, lost consciousness may take from nine to thirty seconds or more.

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Begun in 1945, this trade is strongly opposed by the Australian Meat industry Employee's Union because the export of live sheep deprives workers of jobs. There are many by-products from a carcass and the profits from these flow to the Middle East as well. The union has worked in cooperation with animal welfare groups and has lobbied for a frozen carcass trade. In 1984, when strikes broke out in Portland, Victoria, the RSPCA was called in because freshly shorn export sheep were being held in bare, muddy paddocks without shelter in extremely cold conditions.

Producers receive less for a sheep killed at an Australian abattoir than for one exported live. In the case of the majority of the sheep (young wethers) the difference in price can be as little as three dollars, according to the Meat workers' Union. Older ewes fetch lower prices at the abattoir bust these will have already produced six lambs and five or six years supply of wool for the farmer. By this age the ewes begin to lose their teeth and will eventually starve if left unattended.

It has been suggested in defence of the trade that, should Australia cease to provide live sheep for the international market, then other exporters would move to take Australia's place. However, figures supplied by animal welfare groups dispute this claim suggesting that Australia is the only country or continent capable of providing the volume of sheep required by our customers and that the live trade's replacement with carcass exports would increase profits for Australia significantly. Also, 96% of live sheep exported to Kuwait are of Australian origin and the Iranian authorities have already licensed at least 51 Australian export abattoirs as acceptable slaughterers of animals destined for Iran.

The Sydney Morning Herald has reported that the Philippines registered flag of convenience ship, MS Palawan, is continuing to transport Australian cattle to Japan in contravention of an Australian maritime safety dry dock detention order. Like the MV Guernsey Express, which was chartered by Elders and sank in Typhoon Dale in November, 1996, (drowning 6,000 imprisoned cattle), the Palawan is suffering "extensive corrosion to the underdeck structure."

According to the Northern Territory Cattlemen's Association, live steers fetch only $1.10 at the Australian station yards, while a price of $1.00 per kilo is required just to break even. As is the case with the trade in sheep, the profit to the average producer is small. Large corporations, however, are increasingly looking to livestock exports as a lucrative investment. Prudential is presently accumulating a huge scale pastoral property portfolio with the view to providing live cattle, frozen meat and wool for export to Asia. Their long-term strategy is based on the expectation that the vastness of the enterprise will reduce the price of production and that they will probably be a cyclical upturn in the market, raising prices. Currently, John Elders IXL supplies more than 50% of the Australian sheep for live export.

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While the wretched livestock and the Third World seamen (on a basic monthly wage sometimes as low as $250.00) suffer deplorable conditions, Vroon BJ and other shipping companies receive between $150,000 and $190,000 per voyage, and with an annual profit of between $85 and $125 million. Lloyd's of London and associated insurers are also profiting, to the tune of $7 million in cattle premiums alone.

85 sheep ships and 466 cattle export vessels, many of which are flag of convenience, ferry 700,000 live cattle and five and a half million sheep out of Australian ports each year. This $500 million contribution to the Australian economy provides considerable disincentive to the Australian authorities to undertake any thorough investigation and allows the Australian Meat and Livestock Corporation to sidestep animal welfare issues and union concerns about the trade.

A 1992 House of Representatives Standing Committee Inquiry called on Australia to bring international pressure to bear on flag of convenience ships that do not carry out their international responsibilities, dubbing them 'ships of shame'. The inquiry also referred to the "conspiracy of silence that operates to cover up abuses and deceptions associated with substandard shipping." In a transparent and unrepentant public relations exercise, the Australian Meat and Livestock Corporation is maintaining its position that these export vessels are "state of the art livestock carriers".

The report found that it is commonplace for third world seamen to be bashed, raped, starved and underpaid. The ITF claims to have documented numerous cases of intimidation, including workers' houses being burnt down, bashings, disappearances and suspected murder. To date the Australian government has failed to investigate a number of incidents, including the death of an Indonesian seaman who was bashed aboard an Italian-owned ship, off Dampier, and abandoned in shark-infested waters.

In August, 1995, the Senate Select Committee on Animal Welfare condemned the live sheep export trade on animal welfare grounds and recommended its replacement with a frozen carcass trade. Nevertheless, the major parties, unwilling to jeopardise the rural vote, continue to support the trade. Ian Cohen, New South Wales Greens MP, says that his party is "unequivocally opposed on humanitarian grounds" to the live sheep trade (and also to the cruelty inherent in intensive farming methods). In preference, the Greens support the slaughter, where necessary, of Australian animals by unionised labour within Australia. In October, 1996, the Democrats supported a motion in the Senate, moved by Greens Senator, Dee Margetts, calling on the government to investigate the sinking of the Uniceb. Democrat Senator, Jon Woodley, said, "I want to place on the record the Democrats' concerns about the sinking of the Uniceb and the cruelty to the animals." Both parties also believe that an investigation is warranted on economic grounds. The motion was defeated.

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