Live Export

Bahijah: ‘Desperate decision-making could have been avoided’

Eric Barker and James Nason, 31/01/2024

Bahijah in Fremantle in 2018 (Bahnfrend - CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED)

Bahijah in Fremantle in 2018 (Bahnfrend – CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED)

THE Federal Department of Agriculture’s handling of the MV Bahijah catastrophe – which has involved clearing it as the regulator for export to the Red Sea before ordering it back to Australia three weeks later, where it now sits without an apparent plan for the thousands of animals on board – is drawing serious criticism as the debacle drags on without resolution.

Sources Beef Central has spoken with today with knowledge of the situation say all reports indicate the health and welfare of the animals on board remains good, with adequate food, water and ventillation. However it is understood that Departmental veterinarians have been unable to access the ship due to work place health and safety regulations, so an independent welfare check is still yet to be completed.

Provided the welfare of the stock on board is as good as reported, apparent options from here include restocking the vessel with feed and water and then sailing it around the horn of Africa, to avoid threats to Red Sea shipping from attacks by Houthi rebels, to deliver the livestock to their customer in Israel.

Another option would be to unload the stock into an export accredited livestock feeding yard and wait some time before reloading the stock for shipment to Israel, or selling them once at market weight to a WA processor.

It is understood the sheep are in condition that would not require a long time on feed to reach weights suitable for processing, while the cattle on board are light heifers and young bulls that could require some months on feed before reaching required weights.

But questions such as how quarantine rules would apply to both unloaded stock from the Bahijah and to other stock in the same facility remain up in the air, with the Department officials still not providing clarity to industry on those questions, Beef Central understands.

Industry leaders say the desperate decision-making now required could have been avoided.

WA Farmers livestock president Geoff Pearson said the exporter, Bassem Dabbah, already had a comprehensive contingency plan in place while it was en route – which he said was undermined by the department.

“It was not the department’s decision to turn the ship away from the danger zone and go a safe way, it was the exporter who made the decision,” Mr Pearson said.

“They had a contingency plan, they were going to load fodder in South Africa and keep moving around Africa towards Israel. But the Department would not let them do it.”

Asked why an Israeli ship was headed for the Red Sea, given the tensions have been ongoing in the region since December, Mr Pearson said other voyages had been safely moving through the area.

“We loaded an Israeli ship that went into Jordan on December 26, which managed to get through the Red Sea,” he said.

“Then we loaded the Bahija on January 5 and the situation escalated more with the involvement of the United States.”

Why was no plan made after the boat was turned back?

Mr Pearson said after overriding Bassem Dabbah’s contingency plan, the Department did not come up with any other plans for the livestock.

“It is frustrating because, the Department is now asking the exporter and industry to give them the best contingency plan, because they do not have the capabilities to make the decisions. But the exporter outlined a detailed plan when the boat was sitting off the coast of South Africa,” he said.

Mr Pearson said the department had not contacted any processors or quarantine yards to canvas some of the options. He said it was unclear whether the exporter could get the animals into the domestic market.

“The sheep can be processed because they are fat lambs. The cattle are lighter weight and would not meet processor specifications without being fed for at least another 100 days,” he said.

“We have not had an answer from the department about what happens to the carcases once they are processed – whether they have to be rendered and disposed of or whether they could be sold on the domestic market.

“As an industry and as exporters, we do not know what to start planning for because the department can’t give us any answers.”

Why was the boat called back in the first place?

In making the decision to call the ship back to Australia, the department said it had considered the biosecurity risks and believed they could be managed in Australia.

But the industry has been raising serious concerns about the biosecurity risks presented by the animals coming back to Australia.

“Potentially, these animals have been in a lumpy skin area and the vectors could be sitting on the ship. The department has not been on the ship to do any inspections and they have not done any tests,” Mr Pearson said.

“The ship exited Australia under the export laws but it was brought back under the biosecurity laws, which is confusing for us as industry,

“It is hard to fathom the fact that it was brought back under biosecurity law and it is now posing a lot bigger biosecurity threat than before.”

In its latest update, the department said: “the department is currently assessing the feasibility of an additional independent veterinarian attending the vessel to provide further assurance.”

Will the department take responsibility for industry damage?

The issue has arisen at a time when the live export industry cannot afford the bad press, with Federal Government sticking by its plans to phase out live sheep exports.

Welfare groups, including the RSPCA and Animals Australia, have used the incident to call for the industry to be shutdown. Some of have also been protesting at the Fremantle Port, in Perth.

Most of the mainstream media companies have been covering the ship’s journey. Although some of the claims made in other media articles have been strongly refuted by the live export industry.

Industry organisation, The Livestock Collective, took to social media to push back on claims made in an ABC article by RSPCA chief scientist Dr Suzanne Fowler that the boat needed to be moving for the boat be properly ventilated.

“RSPCA didn’t let the truth get in the way of emotive factually incorrect comments in an ABC news article!” it said in a post on X(Twitter).

“Ventilation is continually working when livestock are on board even when stationary like during loading and discharge operations.”

Mr Pearson said Bassem Dabbah has racked up losses into the millions-of-dollars already, with no indication of any compensation. He said the company would struggle to sell the animals to domestic processors.

 

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Comments

  1. Daniel Marshall, 03/02/2024

    Livelihoods of farmers, exporters – importers and their foreign consumers paying the price for Australian bureaucratic indecision and lack of prompt leadership.
    Meanwhile the large and growing numbers of viewing only live export “stakeholders” across Australia, well their lives and livelihoods go on unaffected, with no jobs or income lost and no meals missed.

  2. Peter Vincent, 02/02/2024

    Just another bureaucratic cock-up to put in the file. If Australian governments acted in the best interests of the nation rather then responding to the uneducated, ignorant concerns of the RSPCA et al, we might applaud politicians and appreciate sound decision-making.

  3. Sue white, 01/02/2024

    Agriculture minister M. Watt has caused a crisis. Poor conduct. Not fit for purpose.

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