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Call for daily freight sailings to boost capacity

NorthLink freight boat Hildasay.
NorthLink freight boat Hildasay.

THE LOCAL seafood industry has called on the Scottish Government to introduce a daily freight service between Shetland and Aberdeen after over £2 million worth of fish was left in Lerwick this week because there wasn’t enough space on the NorthLink ferries.

A number of trailers of fresh salmon had to be left in Shetland on Monday and Tuesday night – as well as on one occasion in late August – before being shipped south the following day.

The industry, which has an estimated annual turnover of over £350 million, has also released a video highlighting the importance of freight services to and from the isles.

Following a Stewart Group Meeting with transport providers and Transport Scotland on Wednesday, the industry said the Scottish Government – which pays Serco NorthLink to operate the Northern Isles routes on its behalf – needs to do more to support local businesses.

Transport Scotland said in response that it continues to “review all possible mitigation options, including flexing timetables as and when appropriate, being mindful of the cost to the public purse”.

Shetland MSP Tavish Scott, meanwhile, said that “this just cannot go on” and suggested that hiring in freight ships could be an option.

NorthLink's freight vessel timetable through to 20 October.

Seafood Shetland chief executive Ruth Henderson praised NorthLink’s “valiant efforts” in accommodating the isles’ seafood, but she said the next Northern Isles ferry contract – due to be in place for November 2019 – needs to go one step further.

Exports from Shetland are expected to increase even further in the coming years when new, larger fish markets in Lerwick and Scalloway are built.

“For the new contract it is imperative that the Scottish Government sources vessels that are designed to cope with the weather on the route and meet our growing freight requirements – both inbound and outbound,” she said.

“We believe that these ships should be fast moving and provide a daily and timely service between Aberdeen and Lerwick with equivalent replacement vessels brought in to cover any dedicated dry-dock periods.”

Henderson added that two Scottish mainland-based fishing vessels were recently advised not to land their fish in Lerwick because capacity could not be guaranteed.

Davie Sandison, company secretary of the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation, said he was pleased to hear first minister Nicola Sturgeon’s recent pledge to promote Scotland’s exports to the world.

But he said there was a “chronic shortage of freight capacity at certain times, currently intensified by the peak in livestock transportation from Orkney”.

Seafood Shetland chief executive Ruth Henderson. Photo: Shetland News

“Unless the current situation is addressed, Shetland’s economy will continue to suffer and the potential for stepping up Scotland’s exports will be undermined,” Sandison added.

The industry said in August Shetland had 24 weekly passenger and freight sailings, compared to 133 to and from Orkney.

They said this was “compounded” by a number of these being shared with Orkney.

There is no freight provision on Tuesday nights from Lerwick, and from now until 20 October there is no freight vessel on Monday nights – one of the busiest days for seafood traffic.

This means that cargo has to go on the passenger ferries, where space is limited.

Sheila Keith, policy officer at Shetland Fishermen’s Association, added: “The current freight service vessels are unable to meet sailing schedules during the winter months, exacerbating the challenges of delivering fresh seafood to customers and leading to reputational damage for the industry in Shetland and financial loss for individual businesses.”

Mackerel moving

MSP Scott, meanwhile said the Scottish Government needs to “step in and sort this out”.

“We simply cannot see a repetition of fresh products not being shipped because of a lack of capacity,” he said.

“As someone observed today, this is worse than Brexit. The Scottish Government want to promote a food export strategy. Quite right too. But they cannot do that unless they provide a freight service from Shetland that gets seafood to the market. This needs sorting right now.”

The matter was also raised at Wednesday’s external transport meeting in Lerwick, where Northward’s Neil Leslie said things were at a “crucial stage”.

“I think Transport Scotland maybe need to dip in their pockets and do something,” he said.

Streamline boss Gareth Crichton added that there could also be capacity concerns for other industries, such as the energy, construction and retail sectors.

A spokesman for Transport Scotland said: “We recognise the challenges faced by the agricultural and seafood sectors on both Shetland and Orkney and hold regular meetings with industry representatives and hauliers through established forums. We also discuss freight and service issues with Serco NorthLink Ferries.

“We will continue to review all possible mitigation options, including flexing timetables as and when appropriate, being mindful of the cost to the public purse. Measures to improve the flexibility of services will be considered as part of the next Northern Isles ferry services contract.”