Export permit process holding back shippers

Melissa WilliamsCountryman

Extra conditions being put on livestock shippers to secure export permits could prolong a slow down of the live sheep trade, which has already caused a sharp contraction in saleyard prices in recent weeks.

A Livestock Shipping Services (LSS) sheep shipment left Fremantle last weekend, after animal activists boarded the vessel in the early hours of Friday morning and delayed trucks at the wharf for several hours.

Prior to that, the previous export shipping permits approved by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) were allocated in late September. These were for Wellard, Emanuel Exports and LSS to ship more than 200,000 sheep and 400 cattle to the Middle East.

The permits contained tougher animal health and welfare safeguards, including requirements for exporters to provide extra stock handlers, feed and water and more detailed contingency plans if shipments were delayed or refused unloading.

WA Livestock Exporters Association chairman John Edwards said two of the three shipments had been discharged and vessels were now returning to Australia. The third was due to discharge last weekend.

He said exporters would have started the process of submitting export paperwork to secure permits in time for the vessels to load again on arrival back in Australia.

Mr Edwards said DAFF was seeking extra assurances from exporters when they applied for export approval and, despite exporters trying to submit applications well in advance, some delays in this process were occurring. He said this was concerning for the industry, which was still in a precarious position.

"Delays to loading approvals are not good animal welfare outcomes when animals are already in export depots," he said. "And with demurrage costs for vessels running into the tens of thousands of dollars per day, delays can make or break a shipment economically."

It is understood the LSS shipment that left Fremantle last Saturday did experience slight delays because of the export permit process, but the company did not want to comment on the issue.

Mr Edwards said there was a danger that if the export permit process became too onerous, exporters and shipping companies could divert ships to collect livestock from other countries.

"The focus of Australian exporters and our Middle East customers is to source Australian sheep, but, if confidence wanes, they will consider alternatives," he said. "We must give vessel owners the right signals to return their ships to Australia.

"If the process in front of them is nothing but delays and extra costs, they will divert elsewhere."

Mr Edwards said unfortunately with last month's shipping delays and one port discharge enforcement by DAFF, several markets had missed receiving Australian sheep in time for the Eid al-Adha festival - a time of significant religious and cultural importance to every Muslim.

"The fact they have been deprived of essential meat supplies at a time when support of the less fortunate in society is a priority will not be received well either," he said.

Mr Edwards estimated there was a big backlog of two or three boatloads of sheep sitting on-farm in WA and numbers ready for export were growing by the week.

"It is a concern to us and to farmers, as this is typically a high-volume period of sheep availability," he said.

"But ships are not moving, sheep are not moving and prices are heading south."

Mr Edwards said exporters would try to manage this situation to the end of the year by positioning as many vessels as possible back to WA, provided there was some assurance that export permits were released in a timely manner.

He said the two vessels currently on the way back to WA would arrive in the next few weeks and those companies could be back in the market buying sheep then.

"Exporters are positive about demand for Australian sheep in Middle Eastern markets," he said.

"But what we need is to be able to get on with writing business and shipping animals to overseas markets without any interruptions."

Australian exporters and the Australian Government have agreed there will be no live animal exports to Bahrain until there are precise positions on animal health protocols and Memorandums of Understanding in place to safeguard any possibility of a re-start in trade.

Mr Edwards said this required engagement by the Australian Government with authorities in Bahrain because a market like Bahrain that took 400,000 sheep annually was needed.

"The remaining sheep markets open to us under the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS) are Kuwait, Qatar, Jordan, Turkey, the UAE and Oman," he said.

"Saudi Arabia has traditionally been one of the biggest markets for Australian sheep and exporters would be keen to get ESCAS compliant supply chains there in due course.

"But the many layers that exist in the market and the dynamics of the supply chains in a country like Saudi don't lend themselves to an easy introduction of ESCAS."

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