Under the burning sun in Romania’s Midia port on the Black Sea, the Lady Maria stands ready to embark its passengers – thousands of sheep to be shipped to Libya for the Eid al-Adha holiday.
Despite a warning from the EU and shock footage released last year of heat-stricken sheep struggling to breathe on ships travelling from Australia to the Middle East, Romania continues to export livestock during the height of summer.
A Midia port operator official insists conditions aboard the Lady Maria, which flies a Tanzanian flag and has been travelling the seas for more than 50 years, are “similar to a five-star hotel”.
But activists have labelled the livestock transport vessels – about 100 of which leave Midia every year – as “death ships”.
“The question is how many sheep will die during this journey,” says Gabriel Paun of Animals International.
Denouncing “undue suffering”, he recalls a 2015 incident when thousands of sheep exported to Jordan by Romania died from thirst or literally were cooked alive during the transport.
The journey from Romania to the Gulf can take several weeks, comparable to the trip from Australia.
The risks this year are particularly high since Eid, the Muslim festival which sees the ceremonial slaughtering of animals and every year boosts Romanian livestock exports, falls in the middle of August.
Vytenis Andriukaitis, the European health and food safety commissioner, demanded last month that Bucharest stop the transport of 70,000 sheep to the Gulf, citing animal welfare and evoking “extreme temperatures”.
He has instructed the Commission to audit Romania’s practices, threatening the EU member with an infringement procedure if it is found to have “systematically” breached the regulation on animal transport.
Agriculture Minister Petre Daea insists his country “strictly respects the rules”.
However, no more checks are carried out once the ships leave Romanian ports, even though the European regulation from 2005 mandates checking during the journeys.
Romania, which joined the EU in 2007 but is one of its poorest members, is the bloc’s third-largest sheep breeder, after the UK and Spain, and a top exporter.
In 2017 and 2018 combined, Romania exported two million sheep in total, mainly to Jordan, Libya and Lebanon, and revenues in 2017 amounted to €430 million, according to the UN Comtrade database.
The market is booming: in February, Bucharest signed a new deal to sell 200,000 sheep to Gulf countries, and hopes to eventually sell two million sheep per year to the United Arab Emirates alone.
Local breeders depend on the exports as mutton is not hugely popular in Romania itself.
“In Romania, we only sell before Easter. The rest of the year we export, especially to Jordan and the Gulf countries,” says Florin Dragomir, a breeder from the central region of Sibiu, known for its quality meat and dairy products.
Dragomir, who has 1,500 sheep, waved away concerns about the summer transports.
One of Romania’s biggest breeders, Agrozoomed, which exports between 70,000 and 100,000 sheep every year, says conditions on the ships are “very good”.
“Someone created this scandal to serve their own interests,” a company official told AFP, requesting anonymity.
Romania’s main livestock breeder and exporter association, Acebop, however concedes that changes are needed to prevent the animals from suffering.
“We have drafted a law to freeze the transport of livestock when temperatures exceed 30 degrees Celsius and to make having a veterinarian on board mandatory,” Acebop president Mary Pana told AFP.
She hopes the law will be adopted this autumn, saying it was urgent, because in case of EU sanctions, the farmers and not the authorities would be penalised.
Australia passed reforms to its live export trade last year following an outcry after video released by animal rights activists showed sheep — some already dead — crammed together in small, stifling pens and covered in excrement on ships.
The footage was taken during five voyages in 2017 to Qatar, Kuwait and Oman from Australian ports. Sheep were reportedly forced to stay standing for three weeks, often in “blast-furnace” northern hemisphere summer conditions.
The new rules require exporters to increase cargo space for sheep by up to 39 percent, varying according to seasonal temperature, and stipulate independent observers must travel on all ships carrying cattle or sheep.
Animal welfare activists have called for a ban on live exports.