Thousands of sheep and cattle are stranded off the coast of Australia after their ship was turned back by violence in the Red Sea, raising concerns among animal welfare groups about conditions on the vessel as the government decides what to do with them.
The ship, MV Bahijah, left for Israel on Jan. 5 from Fremantle, a port city in Western Australia, with 15,000 sheep and 2,500 cattle on board, according to Mark Harvey-Sutton, chief executive of the Australian Livestock Exporters’ Council.
There are currently thousands of sheep and cattle awaiting their fate while docked at Fremantle Port in Australia, as government officials and animal welfare groups contemplate their next step. Courtesy of Tam Michalec
On Jan. 20, the Australian agriculture and fisheries department said the ship had been ordered to return to Australia “due to the worsening security situation” in the Red Sea, where Iran-backed Houthi rebels based in Yemen have launched drone and missile attacks on commercial ships in what they say is retaliation for Israel’s military actions in the Gaza Strip.
The attacks have greatly disrupted maritime traffic in the Red Sea, a key shipping route, leading the U.S., the U.K. and others to launch strikes against Houthi targets as the Israel-Hamas war continues to expand throughout the region.
Australian officials said Thursday that the ship had been allowed to dock at the Fremantle Port but that no livestock could be unloaded due to Australia’s biosecurity regulations, which are among the strictest in the world.
The ship has been “resupplied essential provisions” and is undergoing routine cleaning, and a registered veterinarian is on board, the agriculture and fisheries department said in an update.
On Wednesday, two other veterinarians engaged by the department boarded the ship to examine the animals and found “no signs of significant health, welfare or environmental condition concerns,” it said, adding that along with biosecurity, the animals’ health and welfare are its “highest priorities.”
The department said it was working closely with the exporter to determine next steps for the animals as it considers whether to allow them to be re-exported.
Once marked for export and shipped out of the country, livestock cannot be sold in the domestic market again, Harvey-Sutton said.
“It’s a multibillion-dollar industry, and a lot of our market access is actually underpinned by the fact that we do not have a large number of livestock diseases,” he said. “And one of the ways that we maintain that status is by not letting animals go back on farm.”
If the animals are not re-exported, Harvey-Sutton said, they could be returned to Australia under stringent biosecurity conditions.
“They would go to a facility that is quarantined from other animals,” he said, where they would most likely remain indefinitely until a new buyer is found.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Australia (RSPCA) said it opposed re-exporting the livestock to Israel, a journey that would more than double the time they have already spent at sea.