LIVE exporters are proposing a plan in which shipments of sheep to the Middle East could go ahead during moratorium months over the next two northern summer periods in order to collect data to inform future regulations.
These voyages would only occur during times when heat stress thresholds can be adjusted.
The proposal comes in response to a government review of live sheep exports to the Middle East during the Northern Hemisphere summer which has recommended absolute prohibition periods increase for all Persian Gulf destinations (except Kuwait) but a decrease for Red Sea destinations and Kuwait.
Live exporters support the moratorium being in place but say the Middle East is a big region and there is potential to explore times and destinations where animals can be shipped during the summer where the risk of heat stress is still manageable.
The government review looked at the effectiveness of the moratorium, which runs from June 1 to September 14 and has been in place for three years. It was introduced following public outcry over the Awassi Express disaster in August 2017, where 2400 head of ship died due to heat stress.
However, significant advancements in animal welfare improvement have been made in recent years, including big investment in heat stress research and stocking rates.
Annual average mortality rates for the last few years have been around 0.2 per cent. That is, 99.8 per cent of sheep transported for live export arrive healthy.
The Australian Livestock Exporters Council says data collected prior to 2018 on mortalities and animal welfare outcomes is outdated.
Chief executive officer Mark Harvey-Sutton said the viability of the sector relied on Australia's reputation as a reliable trader of high quality livestock to meet the food security needs of Middle East trading partners.
Maintaining market share was becoming increasingly challenging in the face of rising competition from Africa, South America and Europe - countries that do not have similar animal welfare safeguards, he said.
"We must take every opportunity to maximise shipping opportunities when it is safe to do so from an animal welfare perspective," Mr Harvey-Sutton said.
The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment draft report recognises there are periods at either end of the current prohibition period where risks can be managed through other means and shipping can occur safely.
Mr Harvey-Sutton said the live export industry itself instigated the initial moratorium period and remained steadfast in the view that shipping should not occur when it is not safe to do so.
"However, we would be doing both our trading partners and Australian sheep producers a disservice if we do not ensure prohibition timeframes are proportionate to risk, based on evidence and science," he said.
Fears the livestock export trade is being 'banned by stealth' - that is regulation so restrictive that economic viability no longer exists - have been around for some time now.
A moratorium was a very blunt instrument and the most costly way to manage animal welfare, Mr Harvey-Sutton said.
"These costs are ultimately shared by our trading partners, sheep producers and exporters," he said.
"It should be used as a last resort and only during the periods of greatest risk, as determined by robust evidence and sound science."
Analysis from Thomas Elders Markets highlights the risk that the live sheep sector will continue to dwindle away in the west, as it has done in the eastern states.
For much of the last decade, the proportion of live sheep export volumes from Western Australia accounted for more than 30 per cent of that state's total sheep and lamb annual turnoff, TEM's Matt Dalgleish reported.
"The live export sales option available to the WA sheep producer was a crucial element in effective management of their livestock numbers, particularly during dry seasons," he said.
However, since the introduction of the moratorium, the volumes being turned off to the live export sector in WA have shrunk to just 12pc of total annual turnoff, TEM data shows.
And while the 2020/21 season saw big numbers of WA sheep transported to the eastern states, giving the WA producer another sales avenue, this trade usually only accounted for around 4pc of annual turnoff and could not be relied upon by the WA sheep farmer every season, Mr Dalgleish said.
"The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the susceptibility of weak supply chains, particularly when supply or demand hinges on a handful of market participants," he said.
"The gradual decline, and eventual death, of the live sheep export trade would diminish the diversity of the sheep meat supply chains within WA, nationally and around the globe."
ANIMAL rights activists continue to push for a complete ban to the trade.
In response to the DAWE draft report, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, said the government was just pushing papers around and called on consumers to vote with their purchasing power.
"Australians know that continually reviewing a practice infamous for its cruelty is meaningless, so it's time to speak the only language this industry recognises: money," a statement from PETA said.
"When we buy leather, eat meat, or wear wool, we subsidise the live-export industry. The government has proved time and time again that it won't take action to protect animals, so it's time for compassionate Australians to step up."
The RSPCA said the argument that mortality rates had decreased defied logic.
"It's a sad day when the fact an animal hasn't died is a measure of good welfare," the RSPCA said.
Mr Harvey-Sutton said claims the industry is seeking to recklessly walk back the prohibition to the detriment of animal welfare were alarmist and simply untrue.
"Industry is seeking a cautious and measured approach that will allow evidence and data about when shipping is possible," he said.
"We will only act on opportunities if supported by evidence and in constant communication with the regulator.
"I have every confidence that the live sheep export industry has a prosperous and sustainable future, particularly given its outstanding performance on animal welfare over the last few years."
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