More than 4000 Australian sheep have died from heat exhaustion after 21 days on board a live export ship bound for Qatar from Fremantle.
Exporter Livestock Shipping Service said 4179 sheep perished in August aboard their Bader III vessel – the same ship that was loaded with animals last weekend in Perth despite searing 44-degree heat.
LSS are a Jordanian-owned company based in Perth and are already under investigation by Australian Federal Authorities for two breaches of live export regulations in Jordan and Gaza.
Authorities also probed the August deaths and are expected to release details of the incident on Thursday – five months after the event and following a leaked report to media.
Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon said the sheep took half an hour to die as temperatures soared in the Gulf of Aden.
"This is the worst animal disaster at sea in recent history and another damning example of how the government continues to fail animals in the live export trade," Ms Rhiannon said.
"If this many sheep died during transport to an abattoir in Australia each year, those responsible would be prosecuted.
"The only solution to end this horrific suffering is to end live exports and rebuild our domestic meat manufacturing by moving to chilled box meat exports."
LSS have hired PR consultancy firm Clarity to handle media inquiries. A statement issued yesterday said that the sheep were loaded according to Australian Standards.
"The majority of sheep died during an extreme weather event on day 21 of the voyage," the statement said.
"Industry and Government supported heat stress risk modelling computer software was used to assess this voyage and is used by the company to assess all voyages to the Middle East and northern Hemisphere destination."
Animals Australia director Lyn White said LSS fought a government directive to provide sheep with 10 per cent more space on high-risk voyages travelling from Perth into the Middle Eastern summer.
"The suffering of these animals is too horrific even to imagine. In these temperatures, the ship would have turned into an oven, with these thousands of individual sheep literally baking alive," Ms White said.
"Even on a normal summer's day in the Middle East, the temperature can hover over 40 degrees placing animals at high risk and significantly compromising their welfare.
"So the exporter cannot say that such an incident is 'unexpected' when weather conditions in all parts of the world are routinely becoming more extreme."
LSS said it is a leading exporter of livestock and is committed to both animal welfare and supporting Australian farmers and the Australian agricultural sector to develop export markets in the Middle East and elsewhere that are ESCAS.
"The Department of Agriculture increased the minimum space requirements for sheep by 10 per cent above Australian Standards for the Export of Livestock requirements for the next consignment of livestock on the vessel," LSS said.
"LSS complied with this requirement and the next voyage in November 2013 resulted in a low mortality rate of 0.02 per cent."
According to the Federal Government's Department of Agriculture, in 2009 the live export sector earned more than $996 million and employed about 10,000 people in rural and regional Australia.
The department says that suggestions the live trade could be completely replaced by chilled and frozen meat fails to take into strong cultural preferences for freshly slaughtered meat in Middle Eastern countries.
Ms Rhiannon said that in 2013, 170,000 tonnes of boxed chilled red meat shipped to the Middle East earned $780 million dollars for Australia's red meat industries.
Around 20,000 sheep die on live export ships each year from heat stress, illness, injury and failing to eat the unfamiliar food on board.
Ms Rhiannon said she will reintroduce a prohibition bill to parliament put an immediate end to live animal export.
Western Australia Department of Agriculture said livestock compliance unit officers conduct routine (random) inspections at livestock aggregation points, such as saleyards, export depots and unloading at wharfs where they monitor compliance.