Live export ship return sparks calls for Agriculture Minister Murray Watt’s resignation

Kimberley Caines
The West Australian
The MV Bahijah carrying thousands of sheep and cattle that have been trapped on board for weeks
The MV Bahijah carrying thousands of sheep and cattle that have been trapped on board for weeks Credit: Unknown/7NEWS

Farmers in WA are calling for Agriculture Minister Murray Watt to resign over the botched handling of the return of the live export ship that spent nearly a month at sea with thousands of sheep and cattle on board.

The MV Bahijah docked at Fremantle on Thursday after spending three days floating off the coast while the Agriculture Department tried to come up with a plan on what to do with up to 15,000 sheep and about 2000 cattle on the vessel.

The debacle has seen animal activists renew their fight with the Albanese Government to shut down the live sheep export trade immediately.

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But industry argues the animal welfare conditions should sit squarely with the regulator and Senator Watt for not having protocols in place once the ship arrived on Monday.

“The Department has actually been the cause of more potential animal welfare issues than anybody else,” WAFarmers Federation president John Hassell told The West Australian.

“We really need someone’s head to roll over the incompetence that has been shown over this. (Senator Watt’s) been very keen to go and chase after the floods in Queensland, but he has shown us absolutely scant regard and is supposed to be the Agriculture Minister.

“Either he has to go or the head of the Department of Agriculture needs to take a bow.... Murray Watt’s desire is to put as much damage to the live trade industry as he possibly can. He wants to wipe it out. Why wouldn’t he?”

Mr Hassell said he would have liked to have seen Senator Watt go to Fremantle to sort out the situation or “encourage his staff to get it done as quickly as possible”.

“You’ve really have to wonder where the Government’s priorities lie. I think agriculture is very low on their scale,” he said.

“There’s no animal welfare issues but there could have been. The indecision by the Department of Agriculture has been despicable.”

The boat departed from WA on January 5 and spent 25 days at sea after being ordered by the Department to turn back to Fremantle due to rising tensions in the Red Sea.

Around 4am on Thursday, the ship berthed at Fremantle Port after being given the green light to do so.

Some animals are expected to be offloaded for suspected overstocking reasons so the vessel can take a longer 33-day route to the Middle East around Africa to avoid the Houthis rebel attacks.

The Department has been contacted for comment on the number of livestock to be unloaded, where they will be taken to and when the ship is set to take off to Israel.

The vessel left Fremantle Port just before 2pm on Thursday.

The West was previously told by Government sources that the animals required to be taken off the ship was due to them being sick and that they would have to be transported to quarantine facilities over biosecurity concerns.

The Department said the MV Bahijah was being replenished with supplies on Thursday “to ensure the ongoing health and welfare of the livestock is upheld”.

“The Department continues to work closely with the exporter to determine the next steps for the livestock on board the MV Bahijah and reach a resolution as quickly as possible,” a Department statement reads.

It comes after two independent veterinarians were taken to the vessel offshore on Wednesday “for additional due diligence” to inspect the livestock and facilities on board.

This was despite the exporter’s vet giving daily updates on the welfare of the animals to the Department with the Department on Thursday admitting they were “ consistent” with its report.

Chief Veterinary Officer Dr Beth Cookson said she had only seen a preliminary report from the independent vets that showed “no significant animal health or welfare issues”.

“That provides additional confidence that the livestock are in good condition and have appropriate care and supervision,” Dr Cookson said.

“It also confirmed that there were no signs of exotic disease present in the livestock on board the vessel.”

Australian Livestock Exporters’ Council CEO Mark Harvey-Sutton hit out at animal activists for “spreading lies” about the welfare of the stock on the ship.

“We, as an industry, have had to endure intolerable lies about what is going on — all from people that have never set foot on a livestock vessel once in their lives,” he said.

The Albanese Government is committed to ending the live sheep export trade after going to the past two Federal elections pledging to do so following the deaths of about 2400 sheep on a ship from Fremantle to the ­Middle East in 2017.

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