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Transport / Government agency denies suggesting cutting back seafood exports to alleviate ferry capacity pressure

NorthLink freight ship Helliar.

TRANSPORT Scotland has denied claims that one of its officials suggested Shetland should scale back seafood exports to ease pressure on the NorthLink freight service.

It comes after the seafood industry and hauliers met with the Scottish Government agency on Tuesday to repeat their demand for an urgent solution to freight capacity restrictions to and from Shetland.

While Transport Scotland has refuted an agency official had suggested scaling back exports, Seafood Shetland chief executive Ruth Henderson said those in attendance at the in-person meeting heard the comment.

The Stewart Building group, which represents the sectors, has long called for extra capacity on the service and has offered some new possible solutions.

The capacity constraints in peak periods have previously seen seafood exports left at the quayside in Lerwick.

In a statement on Thursday the group said that during Tuesday’s meeting Transport Scotland officials’ “own solution was that the fishing and aquaculture sectors consider scaling back landings and production to ease the pressure on the freight service”.

However, a Transport Scotland spokesperson said it was “entirely wrong and disingenuous” to suggest this.

“Ministers are very clear about the importance of supporting commercial freight traffic for the economic wellbeing of key rural industries and our island communities,” they added.

“Transport Scotland officials recognised a previous initiative aimed at tackling freight capacity issues was not found to be beneficial by the industry.

“Officials were clear we remain open to working with local suppliers to consider other initiatives, subject to them being practical and offering value for money.”

Henderson said as peak livestock season looms, with no freighter in Lerwick on a Monday or Tuesday the industries are “desperate” to find a solution.

She added: “In the absence of an extra freight vessel for the Shetland/Aberdeen route being procured immediately, we suggested sailing the freighters every day with current layover days (when the freighters remain in port) used to provide services on the Shetland/Aberdeen route direct; sailing passenger ferries back-to-back twice a week, starting on, say, a Tuesday; and diverting some livestock-related cargo to the Pentland Firth.”

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Henderson also claimed that the group’s representations, data provided by Serco NorthLink Ferries and its own report into freight capacity have “all been summarily dismissed” by Transport Scotland and the Scottish Government.

“To say that this is disappointing is an understatement: it is inexplicable,” she said.

Salmon Scotland chief executive Tavish Scott added: “We pay millions of pounds every year for the freight service, and are simply not achieving what we need in order to sustain and grow the sector and the economy.

“Despite our best efforts, there is no evidence that any action is being taken to resolve the very real issues that our inadequate freight service brings to bear on the economy of the islands and Scotland as a whole.”

He said he hoped that the proposed solutions tabled at Tuesday’s meeting are met with a “quick and positive response”.

Shetland Fishermen’s Association executive officer Simon Collins said: “Once again, we ask the agency and the Scottish Government to do better, to listen to constructive proposals, and to work with us. Shetland-based industries are working very hard and very successfully for Shetland and for Scotland.”

Meanwhile Transport Scotland also pointed to the planned development of two new freight vessels to replace the existing Helliar and Hildasay – although they may only be in service from 2026 onwards.

“We continue to explore potential shorter term actions that could alleviate some pressures on the freight service,” the spokesperson added.

“CMAL [Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd] also continues to look for suitable second hand tonnage that could be added to the Northern Isles fleet.”

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