Tech could end live export monitors: RSPCA

The RSPCA fears a federal government call for technological solutions to live export welfare monitoring, could lead to independent observers no longer boarding ships to do the job.

"The risk is that technology will replace independent human observation," Dr Jed Goodfellow from the RSPCA told AAP.

His concerns follow a call by Agriculture Minister David Littleproud earlier this month for technological solutions to improve the regulation of the trade.

"More than 2.3 million Australian livestock are exported each year by sea and air and Australia is a world leader in ensuring health welfare standards of this livestock," he said at the time.

"However maintaining and demonstrating good welfare outcomes currently places considerable regulatory burden on industry, as current monitoring and reporting is largely manual, repetitive and resource intensive."

The government is offering grants totalling $10 million to fund feasibility studies, which could include temperature monitoring and CCTV.

The so called Business Research and Innovation Initiative provides an opportunity to develop solutions to improve government services, according to the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment.

"The current round of the BRII includes exploring opportunities to better use technology to more effectively and efficiently monitor and demonstrate good animal health and welfare outcomes," a spokesman said on Saturday.

"This does not mean independent observers will be replaced. Rather, this work is looking at options on how the government's regulation of the trade could be strengthened and improved."

However Dr Goodfellow is not so sure.

The live export industry has been beset by welfare problems over many years and in 2011 the government briefly banned live exports altogether.

In 2018 the department was granted powers to put independent observers on board high risk voyages, to monitor animal welfare conditions.

But they were only placed on some ships and the program was paused in March 2020 due to COVID-19.

"Our concern is the government does not intend to replace those observers and they are looking at a technological replacement," Dr Goodfellow says.

The chief executive of the Australian Livestock Exporters' Council, Mark Harvey-Sutton, told AAP he completely disagrees with the RSPCA.

"There's extensive monitoring on vessels at the moment and technology has the possibility of enhancing that," he said.

Mr Harvey-Sutton said all live export vessels have stock hands on board and long haul trips or ships carrying breeding stock would also have qualified vets.

He said there had not been any welfare issues since the government paused its deployment of independent observers on some ships.

"Independent observers haven't been present since COVID and there have been no welfare problems ... there's significant onboard monitoring already," he said.

Dr Goodfellow concedes technology could help end-to-end monitoring of sheep on voyages and could be used to track key welfare indicators in pens, such as humidity and ammonia levels.

But he says welfare standards must change fundamentally.

"You can have all the gadgets in the world but that won't change the inherent animal welfare problems with the trade," he said.

Earlier in April, New Zealand announced it would phase out live exports entirely.

The national industry service provider, Livecorp, declined to comment on the grants scheme.

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