Fish merchants angry over ferry cancellations

Fish merchants are furious about the recent delays and cancellations to the North Boats which has led to consignments of fish missing connections to customers on the mainland and beyond.

In a letter to The Shetland Times, a group of the isles’ fish merchants say the delay to their perishable products leads to customer dissatisfaction, making it harder to win future orders.

They also question the reason for NorthLink ferries being cancelled last week and dispute that it can have been for the weather. The fish buyers say the system is “failing to deliver” and sailings could have been diverted or re-timed to avoid cancellation. They say: “Our ferry service has become an embarrassment to customers. This is an unacceptable situation.”

At present the NorthLink service comprises one passenger and two freight vessels. Last week westerly gales were cited as the reason for cancellation of the freight sailings in both directions on Wednesday night and the southbound sailing on Thursday.

Fish buyer Karl Simpson of Simpson & Ward Ltd said the problem was a loss of customer confidence in Shetland produce rather than a financial one. On Thursday he had a consignment of fish to go to Boulogne in France but that order was cancelled. It had to be re-routed to another customer.

Mr Simpson said: “They know you’re trying to re-sell fish and it’s very difficult to get the price when that happens, it never goes up.” But the worst thing was the perception, he said. “It damages future orders because customers lose confidence in you. They lose respect in your ability to service them in future.”

Last Thursday, Mr Simpson said, NorthLink announced at 9am that the freight boat that night would be cancelled, which he said seemed like a “rash” decision. “I don’t know how they arrive at their decisions but I believe a boat of that size could have made the trip. There were no passengers on it [to suffer discomfort]. I feel that NorthLink is setting the bar lower and lower.

“I’m not suggesting they risk people’s lives but it’s not often not safe to make the journey. It [Arrow] is a large ocean-going ship, it should be built to withstand the weather. It went the night after when the weather was as bad if not worse, I was amazed. I couldn’t believe it.”

Mr Simpson does not feel the service compares well with ferries abroad. He said: “I made enquiries with the Faroese freight service. They confirmed that cancellations from the Faroe Islands to Denmark were very rare, less than five times per year. This year so far there have been no cancellations at all. The Faroes have arguably had worse weather than we have had lately.”

Andrew Hunter of ATH Fish said his company was in the same position. He said: “It’s caused a lot of problems. One big buyer is thinking of backing out because they can’t depend on supplies. It’s very serious.”

A spokesman for NorthLink said the company appreciated the importance of a reliable service for all customers. However, safety was always the paramount concern.

The spokesman said: “In this regard a vessel master is the only person who can, or should, decide whether they will sail or not. All vessels handle differently and, again, only an individual master can decide what is appropriate for their vessel.

“Those operating in the Shetland fish sector know that adverse weather impacts on our services and what they have sought in the past was advance warning when such an issue was likely to arise. We now have tried and tested systems in place to ensure that advance warning is provided.

“By direct means, via our own website or through the local media we issue regular operational bulletins to all of our customers. Last week, on the specific sailing to which you refer, we advised all freight customers on the day before of the potential cancellation. Then, on the day when the forecast weather materialised and the master decided that sailing was not possible, we advised all freight customers of the cancellation as early as was possible.”

About Rosalind Griffiths

I am a Shetland Times reporter covering news, including health stories, and features. I have been in Shetland for more than 30 years.

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7 comments

  1. Perhaps we should be using the aeroplanes- air cargo

    Reply
  2. John Thomson

    Iain,
    Working for an field services company and relying heavily on both air and road / sea freight for delivery of spares I can tell you that the last airway bill I saw worked out at about £1000 per tonne whereas road / sea freight works out about 1/3 of that. So I can’t see air freight being financially viable.

    Reply
  3. Seamus McAskill

    Why is it that when there is bad weather forecast the fish merchants still try and send their fish by the North boats? Surely to goodness in their line of work they must know that severe weather is always a factor in the winter months in Shetland? Surely them being “Islanders” must let them know how poor the weather gets in this area? In fact, is there not a huge building at Twageos built to accomodate the WIDDOWS of seafarers caught out by such weather? Ships are designed to go to sea, oceangoing has nothing to do with severe weather. Ships are not unsinkable, look at the Titanic…..I am sure if the North boats had sailed, there would have been damage, and i am sure that if the damage had occured the fish merchants and hauliers would be even more annoyed! If the weather is poor send the fishing boats south with their prized fish, get them to brave the severe gales, wind against tide through a place aptly named THE HOLE/ Fair Isle Gap, which has consumed countless vessels on a poor day. Get their brave selfs to do it and see how much fish makes it to the destination not to mention IF the vessels even make it themselves. Fish trailers also cost thousands of pounds. I am sure if they had been damaged the hauliers would have been even more impressed????? Fish Merchants, Hauliers and surely to goodness Islander must realise that severe weather occurs in this part of the world and must know to use a bit of common sense/ Islander intuition when this weather occurs.

    Reply
  4. Karl Simpson

    Seamus – on the day in question, there was nothing untoward in the forecast. Our market starts at 8am and the cancellation news came through at 9am, by which time the fish had been purchased. If there was a very high swell in the Fair Isle channel, then perhaps the boat could have steamed further east, left earlier/gone later – there are lots of options on the table. Our Faroese friends had no problems in their service that day or on any other day this year and they operate in a more exposed stretch of water than we do. There is always bad weather in this part of the world in winter, are you proposing we close down the entire Shetland economy just in case?

    Reply
  5. Karl Simpson

    If the current ships are unable to negogiate the passage, then we need ships which can. Simple as that.

    Reply
  6. Seamus McAskill

    Indeed, let the Scottish Government throw more billions at bigger ships just to please us Islanders. Great idea. Let them also increase the size of Aberdeen so as these bigger ships can get in. Or, failing that let the ships go to Rosyth, huge ships will fit in there, increase the already arduous journey time. Let them do this just to please us islanders. Great idea. Think back over the years at our Faeroese friends and their larger ships coming in through the night with trailers strewn all over their decks, massive tilts on them like they were going to topple over just to get cargo to a destination. Great idea. Indeed it would make lots of sense to hold off your fish selling antics until a weather forecast has been looked at. Surely this would save you lots of Scottish pounds? I wonder how mr Shetland Transport and Mr JBT and Mr Northwards would feel with his multi trailers worth lots of thousands of Scottish pounds in pieces due to severe weather. Ships will move in severe weather, no matter how large they are. Let the Scottish Government build a bridge up to Shetland while we are at all this madness.

    Reply
  7. Karl Simpson

    “Madness” suddenly seems a very relevant term. I think it would probably be a “great idea” if we leave this issue to other interested parties as the arguments seem to be going a little off course!!

    Reply

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