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Whalsay reels from factory closure

The Whalsay fish factory.

THE SHETLAND island of Whalsay is reeling from the loss of 26 jobs with the closure of a salmon packing plant less than a year after it re-opened.

Until Monday this week, Norpak Island Ltd had been on contract for the Meridian Salmon Group taking farmed fish from its cages off the isles of Unst and Yell, as well as Shetland’s west mainland.

The loss of 300,000 fully grown salmon when 12 cages were blown out to sea during 100mph gales on Christmas Day posed a major setback for the company.

However managing director David Leask said that the main challenge facing the company was uncertainty over the future of the island’s council-operated ferry service, with existing vessels unable to cope and future cuts being planned to save money.

Mr Leask said the company had invested £450,000 to get the business up and running and would have spent more money expanding the operation and providing its own reliable transport service, but that was prevented by space restrictions at the island’s main harbour.

In a statement, the company said: “There has been a huge investment in both equipment and staff for the factory, but with the uncertainty of the ferry service going forward it would be too unreliable for their customers.

“Norpak Island Ltd tried to reduce their reliance on the ferries by taking their own harvest vessel direct to Whalsay, but due to space issues in the harbour and on the pier this could not continue.

“The company could not remain competitive and could not offer the assurances on their service provision due to the uncertainty of the ferries so it was decided to close the operation.”

The company was founded by fish farming pioneers Angus and Ivor Johnson, from Vidlin, who obtained a long term agreement with Meridian Salmon and opened the factory last July. It had closed the previous autumn due to a shortage of fish.

On Wednesday night Mr Leask said that Norpak could probably have coped with the loss of the Unst salmon on Christmas Day, even though it could have led to three months without work.

Meridian had adapted their harvesting schedule to ensure a continuous supply to keep the factory operating, he said.

However uncertainty over the future of the ferry service had been the final straw on top of increases to ferry fares and lack of space on the ferries. The company regularly had five or six lorries using the service every day, and hauliers often had to book three months in advance.

“The council can’t guarantee to our customers that there aren’t going to be cuts and that was a real shot across our bow.

“We would probably have expanded at the end of this year with a lot more tonnage coming out. The factory could have coped, but the ferry service couldn’t.”

Mr Leask is now spending his time trying to help the 21 full time and five part time staff find other work. He thanked them and the ferry crews for all their support over the past 10 months.

Meanwhile Norpak’s sister company Island Innovations that employs 25 staff harvesting fish is secure, he said, though unable to recruit.

Whalsay community councillor John Anderson said the loss of the factory was a big blow for the fishing community with just over 1,000 residents.

“There is a very sad feeling in this place about what has happened to the factory and we are all very disappointed for the people who set it up,” he said.

One or two families had more than one member depending on a wage from the factory, Mr Anderson said, and others hoped to be able to work there in the future.

North isles councillor Robert Henderson said the fate of the factory made him even more determined to push for fixed links for all the islands.

“It’s a sad thing that we in Shetland didn’t go for fixed links years ago as well as (the Scandinavian countries). If we had a fixed link to Whalsay that place could be operated with no restriction at all,” he said.

Shetland Islands Council currently has a policy to campaign for public funding to spend £300 million on fixed links to the four islands of Bressay, Unst, Yell and Whalsay.

That policy has stopped the council from proceeding with advanced plans to build new ferry terminals to serve the Whalsay route that could accommodate larger vessels.

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