LOCAL transport operators and seafood bodies could look into starting their own freight ferry service to the Scottish mainland if capacity concerns on the Serco NorthLink boats are not addressed.
Seafood Shetland chief executive Ruth Henderson said the industries believe a daily freight service is needed ahead of anticipated growth in local industries.
She added that if “you bear in mind how significant the seafood traffic is, there is perhaps merit in a commercial operation to take fish away from Shetland to the mainland”.
A dedicated freight ferry was previously set up in 2002 under the name of Norse Island Ferries as a consortium of Shetland road haulage companies and two mainland shipping lines launched its own service in protest of NorthLink’s rates.
However, it ceased trading after nine months after seemingly winning its battle to drive down NorthLink’s freight fees.
Industry representatives met Scottish transport minister Humza Yousaf on Friday to discuss a range of issues around the ferries.
Among the topics was the future of the Northern Isles ferry contract, which is currently held by Serco NorthLink and is due to end in October next year after it was given an 18-month extension to allow the Scottish Government to explore whether it can be taken in-house.
Their meeting came after the publication of the Scottish Transport Appraisal Guidance (STAG) report, which explores the options for how the next ferry contract should look, as well as the news that the government had bought the three Northern Isles ferries.
The report stated that the “underlying assumption is that the current vessels will remain in place for the foreseeable future”, though larger vessels “will be considered further in the medium term”.
Henderson said the industries are “disappointed that the report does not take account of freight – a fundamental component of the North Isles service – and one which is set to change significantly in the very near future.”
New fish markets are due to be built in Lerwick and Scalloway in the coming months, while other export sectors are anticipating growth too.
Henderson said starting a dedicated service is “a possibility – but let’s try to deal with the service we have at the moment.”
“It is clear that, despite our best efforts, Transport Scotland lacks both an understanding of the current freight requirements and the vision to accommodate the boost in freight activity that is set to take place over the coming months and years,” she added.
“We are already experiencing a capacity issue on vessels departing on certain nights of the week.
“As a result, we have serious concerns that, as our seafood sector continues to thrive and grow, and the new fish markets come online, we will be seriously inhibited by a service that is not evolving to meet Shetland’s needs.
“We very much hope that we can rely on the assurances provided by the minister on Friday, that the cracks in the current operation will be addressed.
“It is our feeling that a nightly freight service will be required in the very near future, and we look to Transport Scotland to make provision for that additional capacity within the lifeline contract.”
In response, a Transport Scotland spokesman said the study “focussed on the impact of reducing passenger and car fares on demand and potential options for addressing capacity constraints”.
“We have been very clear that further work would still be required, once a decision has been taken about tendering, and this will involve further consultation with relevant stakeholders”, he added.
The spokesman said that once members of the study working group – which includes Shetland Islands Council, Zetrans and Highlands & Islands Enterprise – have formally responded to the report, Transport Scotland will “work with them to consider the next steps for the future of the services and to identify affordable longer-term solutions to the capacity issues”.
Yousaf told reporters on Friday that additional tonnage and extra sailings are among the options that could be considered when addressing capacity.
The MSP admitted that it would be “foolish if we just have the status quo that we have now for the next contract”.
He added that running the ferries in house is the “government’s preference – we’ve not shied away from that”.
“But absolutely equal to my own preference, is what the community’s views are on that. So I’m not going to impose a system upon the community that doesn’t want it,” Yousaf added.
He said the “message has been pretty loud and clear” that there was a desire in the isles to see the contract continue to be put out to tender.
Yousaf said a decision will be made in the next few weeks regarding procurement.