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Transport / Seafood exports come to a halt following dry dock delays

Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart said the Scottish Government needs to act fast

Lerwick fish market. Photo Shetland News

SEAFOOD waiting to be shipped to the Scottish mainland which is worth hundreds of thousands of pounds has been caught up in delays with the NorthLink freight service.

As a result of the disruption Shetland’s fish markets will be closed on Thursday, causing an estimated £200,000 worth of whitefish to be kept back.

Industry group Seafood Shetland said exports have “ground to a halt” due to delays in bringing the NorthLink freight boat Helliar back from dry dock.

Responding, Serco’s freight manager at NorthLink Ferries Kris Bevan said the following day: “MV Helliar is returning service following routine maintenance. The next scheduled sailing will be the 15:00 from Aberdeen to Kirkwall and Lerwick on 27 May.”

Scottish Sea Farms’ head of operations Ewan Mackintosh said his company has more than £250,000 worth of goods caught up in the delays.

He warned there is a worry that continued capacity problems on ferries between the Northern Isles and the Scottish mainland could affect confidence in customers buying Shetland produce.

Seafood Shetland said the situation has been compounded by relief vessel MS Arrow being released from the Northern Isles route early on Monday morning , returning to the Isle of Man.

The result of this delay is that there will be no freighter sailing from Shetland on Thursday and “extremely limited capacity for seafood trailers” on the Hjaltland passenger vessel.

“For producers, the result will be cancelled orders and a real threat that customers will lose confidence in the Shetland sector and look elsewhere in the future for their seafood,” the group said.

It is yet more concern from the industry over the ferry service, with the group previously calling on the Scottish Government – which contracts Serco NorthLink to run the service – to introduce a third freight vessel at peak times.

“The events of this week bring the fragility of the service into very sharp relief,” said Seafood Shetland’s Ruth Henderson.

“They also highlight – yet again – the continuing intransigence of Transport Scotland to address the issues faced on the Northern Isles routes to ensure that the economy of Shetland – and, indeed, the economy of Scotland – is not undermined through the organisation’s failure to understand the impact of its inaction.” 

The closure of the two markets in Lerwick and Scalloway on Thursday means that up to 2,000 boxes of whitefish will be prevented from being exported to customers in the UK and Europe. 

Mackintosh meanwhile added that “orders will be cancelled and those that do get shipped south later will miss onward connections, resulting in part-filled loads for onward transport, bringing both a financial and an environmental cost”.

He warned the bigger picture was that customers could lose confidence in ordering from Shetland.

“We operate in a global marketplace with close competition from Norway, the Faroe Islands, and Iceland so this failure has the potential of affecting the wider Scottish economy as well as that of the Northern Isles,” Mackintosh said. 

“We put a lot of faith in our ferry service and generally there is an outstanding job done even during poor weather. However, we need this to continue, and if the type of service failure we are seeing this week creeps in, we will be in serious trouble.

“We simply do not understand why there was no contingency for this outcome given that it was a strong possibility. The service is crucial to our success, to the Shetland economy, and to the many jobs we support.”

Shetland Fishermen’s Association executive officer Sheila Keith said: “Transport Scotland has been warned about the fragility of our freight service for years, and the embarrassing lack of contingency options regularly causes problems for seafood producers. Shetland’s reputation for quality fish has been built on freshness and continuity of supply.

“Breakdowns and other issues will arise in any service, but Shetland seafood producers – and their customers – pay the price for this lack of resilience time and time again.”

The association said there was fish, construction projects, livestock, aquaculture and other industries all competing for limited freight space on both the cargo and passenger boats.

Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart. Photo: Shetland News.

Local MSP Beatrice Wishart told Shetland News that the Scottish Government “needs to urgently resolve the limitations in ferry freight”.

“Ferry freight capacity failings on the Northern Isles route have serious consequences for lives and livelihoods in the isles,” she said.

“The seafood sector faces serious disruption and financial impact without adequate capacity.”

It comes after a report, which was presented to transport minister Jenny Gilruth, by Shetland’s Stewart Building Transport Group found that six in 10 northbound and four in 10 southbound sailings are running close to at least 90 per cent capacity, with one in ten over the allotted capacity.

Government agency Transport Scotland is continuing to look at replacing the Helliar and Hildasay cargo vessels – but it may be only until 2026 before new ships come into service.

A design which includes extra passenger capacity is under consideration, which could help to alleviate a lack of cabin space on the passenger ships during the summer.

A Transport Scotland spokesperson said in response to the dry dock issue: “Ministers are clear about the importance of supporting commercial freight traffic for the economic wellbeing of key rural industries and our island communities.

“While the management of dry dock periods is matter for the operator, we understand the impact that this delay to the MV Helliar’s return to service has on those that depend on the ferry links.

“The operator has amended timetables for the MV Hildasay and we are pressing them to ensure measures are in place to ensure that all time sensitive and livestock volumes are shipped.

“The planned development of the two new freight vessels will address issues like this in the longer term, but work is being carried out to explore potential shorter term actions that could alleviate some pressures on the freight service.

“CMAL also continues to look for suitable second hand tonnage that could be added to the Northern Isles fleet.”