Livestock caught up in the Suez Canal blockage highlight the practical, operational and ethical difficulties of an older fleet transporting a moving cargo across the oceans.
The blockage of the Suez Canal by the container vessel Ever Given was an embarrassing episode for the maritime industry, as the – generally disinterested – eye of the international media turned on us.
In contrast to most shipping news that makes it into the mainstream, this was seemingly more benign. But the reality is that it was a major incident disrupting global trade and resulting in huge and disputed insurance claims.
Crews on board the circa 20 livestock carriers queueing for the canal tasked with looking after animals in the Sinai sun had the added stress of keeping a live cargo fed, watered, and cared for while stuck.
It is a niche, and challenging, global trade. The world’s largest livestock carrier, Ocean Shearer, delivered from China’s COSCO shipyard to Australia’s Wellard Group in 2016, can carry up to 75,000 sheep, or 20,000 cows.
In order to support all these animals, as well as storage for food, they require more crew, as well.
Gulf Livestock 1 - lost
This is a major problem, given that they seem more prone to sinking. Six livestock carriers have been lost in just over a decade. In September last year, Gulf Livestock 1, carrying 43 seafarers and a 6,000-strong herd of cows from New Zealand to China, suffered a loss of propulsion and capsized after being hit by waves kicked up by Typhoon Maysak.
Just two crew survived: the ship’s 45-year-old Chief Officer and 30-year-old AB, both Philippine nationals; another was found dead; the rest were never recovered, including the onboard vet. Neither was its cargo.
The official report is underway yet the ship’s deficiencies had been noted: in May 2019 the vessel was detained in Australia for stability issues, and problems relating to the vessel’s ECDIS and navigation; Indonesian authorities had noted propulsion deficiencies, in December 2019; and in July, the vessel lost propulsion off the Philippines, and had to be assisted by the navy.
What about the suggestion that livestock vessels are more likely to be lost versus the rest of the fleet, as they are on average older, and more likely to fail inspections? As the Paris MoU 2019 figures note, they have among the highest percentage of detentions vs inspections, at 88.5%.
There are allegations that they are not always converted adequately; plus animals may move in bad weather – a moving cargo affects stability. Although, there are of course high-end operations where this is not the case at all, it has to be noted.
Jonathan Spremulli, ICS’s Principal Director (Marine), told Marine Professional, “there is no fundamental reason why livestock ships should be any less safe than any other type of dry cargo ship. Livestock carriers certified to trade internationally have to comply with the same stringent requirements for construction, stability, and navigation as all other dry cargo vessels.
That said, he added, these ships do face challenges specific to transporting livestock, which add to the underlying nature of seafaring, which can often be a dangerous profession. However, as the incident in Suez itself showed, serious incidents among a global fleet of tens of thousands of ships and 1.7 million seafarers are in fact exceedingly rare.”
Two recent casualty reports mention moving live cargo as a factor in the sinking. In 2019, Palau-flagged Queen Hind capsized soon after leaving port in Romania, en route to Saudi Arabia; the 22 crew survived, but at least 14,000 sheep drowned.
Writing on the incident, Australian Veterinary Surgeon Dr Lynn Simpson wrote: “Many millions of animals have died horribly on ships and been thrown to the sea, this trade is simply unnecessary… Refrigeration is the answer to avoid risking any animal being forced to travel at sea.”
The tide is turning
Sentiment is turning against the practice of live animal trade by sea elsewhere. New Zealand, Wales and England have announced their intention to ban the export of live animals. But some economies rely heavily on trades like these; and the value of the global trade is estimated at around £16bn (US$22bn).
“The best way to ensure improvement is to have any specific incidents thoroughly and robustly investigated so that lessons can be learned,” ICS’s Spremulli added. “The industry has processes for this and a global regulator in the International Maritime Organization (IMO). The ICS continues working with the IMO to ensure ships are built, maintained, and operated in accordance with a robust regulatory framework which is continually under review and being improved.
“In a wider sense, seafarers’ wellbeing must be at the heart of any regulations. How can we make this safer for crew and better for animals and their welfare?
“Ships dedicated to carrying livestock should always carry personnel experienced in the carriage of livestock and the animals’ needs. It is of vital importance that if these requirements are being sidestepped for any reason, this is brought to the attention of the relevant authorities.”
Charlie Bartlett is a maritime journalist.