SOME major players in the Shetland seafood industry have hit out at lifeline ferry operator NorthLink after suffering significant losses due to ferry cancellations and delays.
Persistent south easterly gales, tide restrictions at Aberdeen harbour and a reduction in sailings due to one vessel being out of service for maintenance have played havoc with the isles’ transport links since the middle of February.
On Thursday the freight vessel was delayed by three hours, only arriving in Lerwick at noon.
Seafood producers said that three quarters of sailings during the last two weeks had been either delayed or cancelled resulting in losses worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.
In a statement on Thursday afternoon NorthLink said they fully appreciated the industry’s anxieties and shared their frustration with freight disruption having a negative impact on their businesses.
Michael Tait, of North Atlantic Shellfish Ltd, said the sector was awaiting an urgent meeting with the ferry operator to discuss the recent problems, which will take place next week.
The feeling of desperation among seafood producers was further heightened by the fact that neighbouring Orkney has been benefiting from an improved NorthLink freight service to the detriment of Shetland.
Mr Tait said: “We have built up our business on selling fresh shellfish into the UK market and up till recently we have been successful in doing so.
“Last week however we had 86 per cent of the sailings which were either cancelled or late. This has coincided with the vessel refits, but also the Orkney addition to the freight schedule has seen the service to Shetland deteriorate to the point that the boats can’t catch up from a weather delay and our service is now not fit for purpose.
“This is no way to run our lifeline ferry service for Shetland. Our industry is a sustainable wealth generator for Shetland and we must nurture it, not strangle it by failing to provide the required service.”
His sentiments were echoed by Jim Tait, who runs mussels sales and marketing company Seaspray Shetland.
He said NorthLink’s freight service was not fit for purpose and questioned why the two new freighters Hildasay and Hellier were not able to sail in more “challenging conditions”.
He added that the industry also wanted dedicated diversionary ports at Rosyth or Scrabster, in case Aberdeen was closed due to the high south easterly swell so that seafood producers could still get their products to the Scottish mainland and the markets.
Mr Tait said: “NorthLink tells us that they have got modern vessels, equipped to the highest standards with a professional crew, but frankly the service they provide to customers in Shetland does not reflect that at the present time.
“They have got these two new freight vessels that recently came into service with the old vessels either retired or being sold. We were quite hopeful that these new vessels would provide a better more regular service.
“But they seem not to be able to go in any more challenging conditions than the passenger vessels, which we think are not good enough. The vessels should be able to sail to Aberdeen and come back in gale force eight or nine winds, anything above that it is very legitimate to stay in port.”
A NorthLink spokesman said that over the past fortnight the company together with its freight contractor SeaTruck Ferries had reviewed the performance of the two cargo ships.
“Performance data for our freight service over the past 12 months shows that we have delivered 630 sailings out of 653, giving a reliability record of 96.5 per cent, and 81.9 per cent of these sailings have been on schedule.
“That gives some indication as to how the past fortnight is not representative of the general situation.
“By law it’s for masters to decide whether to sail or not and after conducting their own enquiries at our request, Seatruck are satisfied that their masters on Helliar and Hildasay made the right decisions on when to sail, when to cancel and when to proceed at reduced speed.
“It’s wrong to suggest that freight ship masters have not been sufficiently bold when deciding how to proceed. Indeed Hildasay has been in operation with us for over a year without complaint.
“Helliar, sister ship to Hildasay, although having been on the route for just a month during which we have experienced particularly poor weather, operates to the same service criteria,” he said.
Meanwhile seafood trades body Aquaculture Shetland said they were already in regular contact with NorthLink as well as the Scottish government who provide the subsidy for the lifeline link.
They would meet again next week, its general manager David Sandison said, adding that their concern regarding the consistency of the service delivered to Orkney and Shetland as well as the issue of a diversionary port policy would be discussed.