The federal government will block the departure of a live export ship next week unless it makes serious improvements to the conditions and welfare of the sheep onboard.
On Thursday the agriculture minister, David Littleproud, launched an urgent investigation into his department after viewing footage filmed on an Emanuel Exports ship and obtained by Animals Australia.
Littleproud said the video, which shows conditions on the ship where about 2,400 sheep died while being transported from Fremantle to the Middle East in August 2017, was disturbing.
The ship had left Fremantle carrying 63,804 sheep, but the high mortality rate of 3.76% due to heat stress triggered a departmental investigation.
Emanuel Exports is currently preparing to export about 65,000 sheep and 250 cattle to Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Oman and Qatar on Tuesday.
But in a letter from the department’s assistant secretary, Narelle Clegg, seen by Guardian Australia, the company was told it must make a number of improvements before it will be allowed to leave.
If they wish to be allowed to leave Fremantle with the livestock Emanuel Exports must have reduced the stock density by at least 15%, and have a government-funded independent observer on board who will send daily photos and video back. They must also clean the deck, it said.
“Under the [Australian Meat and Livestock Industry] Act, the Australian government has a responsibility to act in the interest of all those involved in the sustainable export of livestock,” the letter said.
“The department has become aware of new information which raises serious concerns about animal health and welfare during the export of live sheep to the Middle East by Emanuel over a period in 2017.”
The information indicated that sheep were in overcrowded pens and not able to readily access food and water. A large number of sheep suffered heat stress, sick and injured sheep were not treated or euthanised, and the management of the removal of dead animals was insufficient, it continued.
There was also a “significant build-up of animal waste” which led to sheep becoming bogged, and allegations that the accredited vet and stockperson on one voyage left the vessel early.
The department barred Emanuel’s export from going ahead without prior approval from the secretary. The exporter must submit its proposals to meet the government’s demands.
The whistleblower-filmed footage which Littleproud viewed showed dead and decaying sheep.
“I saw footage provided to me by Animals Australia, which is very disturbing,” Littleproud said.
“This is the livelihood of Australian farmers that are on that ship … This is their pride and joy and this is total bullshit that what I saw has taken place.”
Littleproud said he had written to the department and live export industry upon receipt of the original investigation into the August incident, before he saw the Animals Australia footage.
Labor’s agriculture spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon says he was concerned the department’s investigation found no breach of regulatory standards.
“That can only mean one of two things. Either the investigative processes are flawed, or the standards are insufficient,” he said.
Footage of a shipment from August last year is expected be shown on Channel Nine’s 60 Minutes program on Sunday night.