Commissions | 29.03.2023

Live animal export by sea consigned to New Zealand’s history books

In 2021, the New Zealand Government announced a ban on the live export of animals by sea, signalling the end of a government review triggered by a media exposé two years earlier.

Live export has resulted in numerous devastating incidents worldwide, involving trade disputes, shipment rejections, mechanical failures, and storms. In 2003, in the wake of a disaster involving the export of over 57,000 New Zealand and Australian sheep, the New Zealand Government suspended the export of live sheep for slaughter. In 2007, a prohibition on the export of all livestock (defined as cattle, deer, goats and sheep) for slaughter was introduced. There have been no livestock exports for slaughter since 2008. However, live export for breeding purposes continued.

For over a decade, animal advocates have criticised live export due to the harrowing voyages and conditions in destination countries. On board, animals are confined in cramped and unsanitary conditions. At the mercy of high seas, many suffer heat stress and injuries, with some not surviving the journey. Reports obtained under the Official Information Act list bone fractures, pneumonia, intestinal bleeding, and bacterial disease among the conditions suffered by these animals. Most animals exported from New Zealand are destined for intensive farms in countries that house, breed and eventually slaughter animals in ways that would be illegal in New Zealand.

In September 2020 the sinking of the MV Gulf Livestock 1 resulted in all 5,867 cows and 41 of the 43 crew members, including two New Zealanders, losing their lives. This prompted a temporary suspension of live export and another government review but soon after, the trade not only resumed but increased. In the two years since the live export ban was announced, New Zealand exported a staggering 259,640 cows to China, more than in the previous six years combined.

The Gulf Livestock 1 disaster increased public interest in the trade and catalysed activists to intensify pressure to ban the trade. It was clear that live export undermined New Zealand’s own animal welfare laws and posed risks to animals, humans, and New Zealand’s international reputation. Given live exports by sea accounted for only 0.6 per cent of primary sector exports in 2021, the industry struggled to provide justification on economic grounds. Unable to control animal welfare standards outside its jurisdiction and with no way of mitigating risks, the Government rightfully had little choice but to consign the trade to the history books.

The Animal Welfare Amendment Act 2022, which implements the ban, passed its third and final reading on 28 September 2022, with the ban taking effect on 30 April 2023. While the ban is a victory for some animals, it does not apply to the millions of live animals exported by air every year, including over two million day-old chicks. Also, with New Zealand’s general election later this year, it remains to be seen whether the ban would survive a change of government. For the animals’ sake, let’s hope so.

Bianka Atlas
Auckland, New Zealand