SHETLAND Islands Council is being asked to help pay to charter a relief vessel to reduce disruption during next year’s extended re-fit of the three NorthLink ferries.
The Scottish government agency Transport Scotland has suggested the SIC could put a five figure sum towards hiring the 26 year old CalMac ferry Hebridean Isles to provide cover on the Pentland Firth for three weeks from 23 January.
Councillors will discuss the proposal early in the new year, but while it has the support of the local seafood industry, it has caused an outcry in Orkney where folk feel they are being offered a poor deal.
Transport Scotland officials made the suggestion last week at a meeting with the Shetland seafood and haulage industry, who fear huge losses from an extended refit period that will leave the islands with just one passenger ferry for nine weeks until 26 March.
The industry is annoyed that one of the Shetland ferries must stand in for the Hamnavoe on the Pentland Firth during its refit, a situation described by Shetland MSP Tavish Scott as “a second class service”.
Seafood producers suffered losses during the past two winters due to the six week long dry docking of ferries coupled with adverse weather and Aberdeen harbour being closed.
SIC head of transport Michael Craigie is now drafting a report to go before councillors proposing various options including paying a five figure sum towards the charter cost, or additional sailings between Lerwick and Aberdeen.
The local seafood industry clearly favours chartering the Hebridean Isles from late January into February, when most weather related disruptions are likely.
This proposal is already making waves in Orkney, but Allan Wishart, chairman of Shetland’s transport partnership ZetTrans, insisted there was no hidden agenda.
“It is regrettable that Orkney thinks we are going behind their back. There is absolutely no wish to do that, it has not been done and we will not do that. I can’t be adamant enough about that,” he said.
“This is purely a suggestion that has come from Transport Scotland, and it has never even reached the council yet.”
Shetland’s seafood exports of salmon, whitefish and mussels are estimated to be worth nearly £300 million a year.
A Transport Scotland spokesman confirmed that the agency was in discussion with the SIC, but was unable to give details at this stage.