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Scallop fishermen stuck ashore after council shuts off access to unsafe Toft pier

The fenced-off pier at Toft early this morning. Photo: Robert Williamson.

INSHORE fishermen in the north mainland were unable to access their shellfish boats on Wednesday morning after Shetland Islands Council put up a barrier preventing use of the dilapidated Toft pier.

Three shellfish boats are currently tied up at the pier, which council-commissioned engineers have deemed to be unsafe.

It could scarcely come at a worse time for the scallop fishermen, whose produce attract by far their highest price at this time of year in the lead-up to the festive period.

The owners of the three boats, Sidney Johnson, Billy Reid and Peter Reid, were surprised to discover first thing this morning that a barrier had been put up overnight.

They then travelled to Lerwick to attend the SIC’s harbour board meeting where the subject was discussed. Immediately after that talks were held with council infrastructure director Maggie Sandison and other officials.

Both parties said the option of putting a pontoon in place, and the alternative of landing scallops at a private facility owned by Grieg Seafood on the east coast, were now being looked at urgently.

Johnson told Shetland News the situation was extremely frustrating because the barrier “went up last night when we were all sleeping – we only found out this morning that we couldn’t get to our fishing boats”. The crews had returned home unpaid, and he felt it was “a bit underhand”.

Scallop fisherman Sidney Johnson says it is imperative a solution is found, and fast, with the pier's closure coinciding with scallop boats' most lucrative time of the year.

“This is a high value time for us when the price of scallops rockets through the roof,” he said, “and we’re going to miss that if we can’t sort something quick.”

Other alternatives such as berthing at Cullivoe and Burravoe were unsuitable, but Johnson acknowledged Sandison’s “hands are tied with legalities and insurance”.

He hopes the council will be able to borrow a pontoon from Lerwick Port Authority (LPA) while getting a pontoon of its own ready for use.

Johnson said using Grieg Seafood’s Setter Ness pier at Lunna might be a temporary option, though it was “again not ideal” with a long journey by road to get there.

“I’m still annoyed that it’s taken so long and it’s come to this – it’s taken so much moaning on our part to get even to speak to them,” he said. “But they’ve promised to work together to get this temporary solution. It’s the best outcome we can get and we have to thank them for at least doing that.”

A very central safe haven

Robert Williamson of Scalloway-based QA Fish said it had been relying on two of the scallop boats’ produce to fulfil shellfish orders.

He said it was vital an alternative was found because there was nowhere at Collafirth for the boats and limited room at Sella Ness, while for small boats working in Yell Sound meant encountering “pretty treacherous waters” and Toft was a “very central safe haven to come into”.

Williamson understood that if the pier was unsafe it had to be shut off, but he felt there had been “a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to completely close off the pier overnight without much consultation with the boats”.

Sandison said she explained during the meeting with the scallop fishermen why things had “escalated so quickly”.

Last week a survey was commissioned to look at another repair option that involved injecting resin to stabilise the structure, but that survey identified that the pier’s condition had worsened considerably. “They couldn’t understand how we’d gone from saying it was okay to saying seriously, you’ve got to stop using it, but that’s the reason why.”

Infrastructure director Maggie Sandison said the council was doing what it could to put a solution in place swiftly.

She said the council was moving as fast as it could to find a temporary fix, speaking to both Grieg Seafood and the LPA while also working to create a more permanent solution.

“People are off sorting those solutions,” Sandison added, and she hopes to update the shellfish boats and other pier users later on Wednesday.

She has previously explained that the council was struggling to construct a business case for a replacement pier because the income generated from the pier is minimal compared to the estimated half a million pounds-worth of crabs, lobsters and scallops landed there – 14 per cent of the islands’ overall shellfish catch. Those figures are drawn from an NAFC Marine Centre report for the year 2015.

“We need to thrash out a proper deal’

Johnson accepted the levies issue needs to be “ironed out”, but the main problem was the council had not been collecting them.

Robert Williamson of QA Fish.

He said small inshore shellfish boats paid a different rate to salmon and mussel farmers and, while they would be “happy to pay for a proper facility”, at present they would resent paying a 2.5 per cent levy to use a pier that has deteriorated to a “substandard” level.

“We need to sit down with Shetland Fishermen’s Association, Shetland Islands Council and thrash out a proper deal that’s fair for everybody, and that’s not happened,” he said.

Johnson said Toft was a heavily-used pier and it “would be stupid for the SIC not to replace it and gain some proper levels of income from it”.

The local authority’s oil reserves are now valued at over £320 million and he said they could “dip into the reserves at any time, the money’s there, and I don’t know why they’re beating around the bush about this”.

Arrangements are being made to provide access so the shellfish boats can be moved, which Johnson said he’d be happy to do “once there’s an option on the table to use Toft again via a pontoon, and the date it will be installed – then we’ll move away and let them get on with their job”. 

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