The department has said voyages to the Middle East “should be avoided” if there was a higher than 5 per cent risk of reaching a heat and humidity temperature – known as the wet-bulb temperature – of 29 degrees, the level even industry agrees is a “danger zone” for sheep.
The Al Kuwait is operated by a company with close ties to the disgraced exporting company Emanuel Exports which was stripped of its licence as a result of the Awassi Express voyage.
Dr John McBride, a former seasonal climate forecaster at the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO researcher, wrote to the department on Monday saying hotter than normal water temperatures in the Persian Gulf meant that sheep would be exposed to a wet-bulb temperature hotter than 29 degrees putting them under heat stress.
“For the vessel to encounter ambient wet-bulb temperatures exceeding 29 degrees, requires that it traverses an ocean with sea temperatures exceeding 33 to 34 degrees,” Dr McBride said.
“Every year the sea temperatures in the month of June are in the range of 31 to 34 degrees; this year the current sea temperatures are higher than normal, so the expectation of the vessel crossing a region of sea temperature above 33 degrees is very high.”
The department once proposed restricting the maximum wet-bulb temperature to 28 degrees but watered down the limit after a backlash from exporters.
The opposition’s spokesman for agriculture Joel Fitzgibbon said the department must publish its full scientific advice if it granted the exemption.
“To secure an exemption there are two key tests: the first is to show these are extraordinary circumstances – that seems pretty clear,” he said.
“The second is to demonstrate animal welfare standards can [be] met – that is less clear and the regulator will need to be able to show it has reputable advice from more than one source,” he said.
Labor wants a phased-out end to the live export of sheep. Lyn White from Animals Australia, which supports a ban, said the public would not tolerate an exemption to the new rules.
“The majority of Australians remain opposed to this trade despite assurances that the welfare of animals will be prioritised,” she said.
“If an exemption to newly minted laws to halt trade in the northern summer is granted, public confidence in the regulator will be shattered.”
A spokesperson for the department said the situation was “far more complex than simply setting a maximum allowable wet-bulb temperature limit”.
“There is a great deal of scientific and legal information to consider before the delegate can make their decision,” the spokesperson said.
Latika Bourke is a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based in London.