Israel-bound livestock ship back in Australia after 25 days at sea due to Houthi strikes

Ship carrying 16,500 sheep and cattle ordered to turn back amid ongoing Yemen Houthi rebels attacks on Red Sea shipping; officials say animals in good health

A view of the MV Bahijah, loaded with 14,000 sheep and 2,000 cattle, off the coast of Western Australia, February 1, 2024 (Screenshot: Sky News Australia, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
A view of the MV Bahijah, loaded with 14,000 sheep and 2,000 cattle, off the coast of Western Australia, February 1, 2024 (Screenshot: Sky News Australia, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

A ship carrying thousands of livestock destined for Israel that has been stranded at sea for almost a month has finally docked in Australia after being ordered home due to ongoing attacks against shipping by the Houthi rebels in the Red Sea.

About 16,500 sheep and cattle had been stowed on the MV Bahijah since January 5, when it sailed for the Middle East from the Western Australian port of Fremantle before it was ordered by the government, two weeks into its journey, to turn around due to the ongoing strikes by the Iran-backed Yemeni rebels.

In the aftermath of the October 7 Hamas-led onslaught on southern communities near Gaza, Yemen’s Houthis, an Iranian proxy, have launched a flurry of drone and missile attacks claiming to target commercial vessels with Israeli ownership or bound for one of the country’s ports. Many of the boats targeted had no connection to Israel at all.

The ongoing threat prompted the world’s major shipping companies to temporarily suspend sending their vessels through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal.

Since Monday the vessel had been sitting off the Western Australian coast as concerns grew for the welfare of the animals on board. It finally docked at Fremantle on Thursday, 25 days after it had set off from the same port.

Authorities are now rushing to form contingency plans for how to safely offload and quarantine at least some of the livestock with heatwave conditions in the region adding to the challenge.

On Wednesday, authorities sent two veterinarians onto the vessel to inspect the animals, but they found no significant health or welfare issues among the livestock.

“That provides additional confidence that the livestock are in good condition and have appropriate care and supervision,” said Beth Cookson, Australia’s Chief Veterinary Officer. “It also confirmed that there were no signs of exotic disease present in the livestock on board the vessel.”

This photo released by the Houthi Media Center shows Houthi forces boarding the cargo ship Galaxy Leader, November 19, 2023. (Houthi Media Center via AP, File)

The reprieve for the animals may be short-lived as authorities are currently assessing an application to re-export the livestock. It will likely see them at sea for another month as the MV Bahijah avoids the Red Sea by sailing around Africa to access the Suez Canal ports, adding thousands of miles and more than a week to the trip.

Biosecurity rules mean the animals — roughly 14,500 sheep and 2,000 cattle — cannot disembark without being quarantined. Officials are yet to decide if they should be let off or sent back to sea.

While officials say the livestock are in good health, some politicians and animal rights activists claim their plight amounts to cruel mistreatment and have called for Canberra to bring forward a planned ban on live sheep exports.

Industry figures have called claims that the animals are suffering ignorant and asked why the government has taken so long to decide the ship’s fate.

“It’s fair to say people are frustrated that the decision has not happened more quickly,” said Mark Harvey-Sutton, head of the Australian Livestock Exporters’ Council.

Australia’s live export industry shipped more than half a million sheep and half a million cattle overseas last year.

The MV Bahijah sails under the flag of the Marshall Islands and is carrying the livestock for Israeli-based export company Bassem Dabbah, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

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