A WESTERN Australian live sheep exporter could gain an exemption for an impending shipment despite an approaching Middle East moratorium deadline and an outbreak of COVID-19 on a vessel berthed in Fremantle.
Six crew members from the MV Al Kuwait — which docked in Fremantle last Friday on its return from the Middle East — have tested positive for COVID-19.
About 56,000 sheep were due to be loaded on the Al Kuwait over the next few days before June 1, when a moratorium starts on shipments to the Middle East until mid-September.
The sheep are currently held in a feedlot south of Perth and are in good health, according to the company and Minister for Agriculture David Littleproud.
Exporter Rural Export and Trading WA is working with the federal Department of Agriculture to assess options for the proposed shipment, including an exemption to ship the sheep during the moratorium on the Al Kuwait or, if crew COVID-19 quarantine requirements of up to two weeks prevent this, on another vessel. However, the RSPCA has said it opposed the granting of an exemption.
Mr Littleproud told media this morning that his department could provide an exemption for the shipment if the vessel could not sail until after 1 June.
“I’ll leave for the independent regulator to make that determination not me as a politician, I think that it’s important there is clarity around that.
“But as I understand it, all the conditions on the boat are met, in terms of the numbers that will be allowed to sail.”
He said the department had told him this morning that the sheep were in good health, they have shelter and access to water, and have had veterinary checks.
“They are in good condition and as far as we understand, they are ready to sail.
“But let me just say that needs to happen after a couple of things; firstly, a deep clean of the boat, secondly, there is a crew that is healthy enough to be able to do that,” he said.
“So between the WA Health and the Department of Agriculture, we are working with the exporter in understanding the situation.
“But we are trying to work through that as quickly as we can, understanding that the northern summer is coming and coming quickly,” Mr Littleproud said.
A statement from RETWA today said any of the Al Kuwait crew members that had previously felt unwell or were showing symptoms have now been tested for COVID-19.
RETWA managing director Michael Gordon said the company is taking every precaution and is extremely concerned by the confirmation of the six positive test results.
“The health and wellbeing of the vessel’s crew remains our top priority,” he said.
“We are working closely with WA health authorities, following their advice and ensuring the highest level care for the crew is in place.
“The crew on board have been communicating with their families to let them know they are safe and well provided for,” Mr Gordon said.
RSPCA is monitoring the situation
The RSPCA said it will be closely monitoring the welfare of 56,000 sheep after the COVID-19 outbreak.
“The RSPCA has also expressed its concern for the affected workers, many of whom work under notoriously difficult conditions on board live export ships.
“These sheep should be well cared for in the Australian feedlot while alternative local markets are found through West Australian abattoirs,” the RSPCA said.
“Under no circumstances should exemptions from regulations prohibiting the export of sheep between 1 June and 14 September be granted to accommodate this consignment.
“This would subject the sheep to unacceptable levels of heat stress and death due to extreme heat and humidity in Middle Eastern waters at this time of year.”
PM hits back at calls for trade cessation
Animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) today said it has written to the Western Australian government, calling for it to push the Federal Government to ban live exports. See the PETA letter here.
However, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has told Sky News in response to calls for the cessation of the live export trade that the situation can be managed.
“We’ve got the systems in place and they can be managed and they can be protected.
“But if we’re going to stop exporting our agricultural products or our resources, then that is going to hurt our economy drastically, so I would caution people from getting too far ahead of themselves on this,” Mr Morrison told Sky News.
Al Kuwait crew members in quarantine
Channel Seven media reported yesterday afternoon that the infected Al Kuwait crew members have been transported to a Perth hotel for quarantine purposes.
The vessel is reported to have been granted permission to dock by the Federal Government on May 20, even though crew members had reportedly recorded elevated temperatures at the time.
A further 42 crew members are on the ship, including two Australians.
WA Premier Mark McGowan confirmed the cases to media yesterday afternoon, describing it as “an extremely concerning situation”.
Mr McGowan said he was advised about the situation on Tuesday morning.
Mr McGowan told media the remaining 42 crew members were “currently well” and would remain on board the ship to be monitored and undergo health assessments. But he expected more to be diagnosed with COVID-19 over coming days.
“I suspect it is probably more than likely that more crew members may become infected with the virus. This is an extremely concerning situation that we find ourselves in,” he told the ABC.
A WA Health team is also reported to be on board the ship carrying out further crew assessments. The Al Kuwait is operated by Kuwait Livestock Transport & Trading, the parent company of RETWA.