The lack of a reliable freight service between Shetland and the mainland is damaging seafood businesses in the isles, industry representatives warned today.
It follows recent disruptions to sailings of the NorthLink freight vessels Hildasay and Helliar, which, due to a combination of poor weather, the wet-dock timetable and Orkney being included on the route, resulted in 73 per cent of sailings over the past week-and-a-half arriving late or not at all.
In real terms, this meant cargoes arrived on time in Aberdeen on only three out of 11 days from Sunday 13th to Wednesday 23rd February, according to Michael Tait, managing director of North Atlantic Seafish.
In an outspoken attack, he said that the current service was “not fit for purpose” and that it had “absolutely” impacted on the firm’s orders from businesses down south.
Mr Tait said: “We must have our product on the mainland by 11am the day after dispatch at the latest.
“This is in order that we can get it to Glasgow where the distribution centres operate which haul our product all over the UK and beyond. These loads are linked in to other mainland products and can’t be held back due to connections further down the line.”
These delays have cost the company so far 40 per cent of wholesale orders for mussels over the time period, he said.
Mr Tait said that he understood that extreme weather conditions can affect the sailings, but more should be done to minimise the disruption to businesses in Shetland. He said he felt there was a lack of understanding from NorthLink about the urgency and extent of the problem.
He said: “We think it reasonable to expect a service which will sail up to around a gale force nine, we need a freight schedule which is robust and we need a reliable port on the mainland to use day in day out which is able to cope with common weather events. If that port is closed we need an alternative fallback position which the freight vessel can go to immediately.
“Last week cost us around £9,000 – we’re not a huge company … [NorthLink] don’t get a fine or are impacted financially if they don’t sail.”
Mr Tait said that he and others from the industry had requested a meeting with NorthLink bosses to discuss the situation: “They responded by email to say they would arrange a meeting ‘shortly’ – but there’s very little urgency on their behalf to do something about this.”
Mr Tait said he was aware of the upcoming NorthLink board meeting in March and hoped the freight issue would be on the agenda.
He said: “This is no way to run our lifeline ferry service for Shetland. Our industry is a sustainable wealth generator for Shetland and we must nurture it, not strangle it by failing to provide the required service.”
Shetland MSP Tavish Scott said he was aware of the issues.
He said: “I’m very concerned with the difficulties that Shetland’s seafood exporters have been experiencing.
“I raised this with NorthLink and the chairman of the board, Peter Timms. They are due to meet in Shetland in mid March and I want them to meet the leaders of local industries so they can understand the problems that [the industry] is facing.”
Responding, a NorthLink spokesman said: “We’re aware of the concerns being expressed by mussel producers and have been in regular communication with them over this period of exceptionally poor weather and disrupted sailings.
“We’ve suggested an early meeting at their convenience at which the issues they raise can be discussed and addressed in person. This is now scheduled to take place next week.
“We fully understand and appreciate their anxieties. Indeed we share their frustrations and their concern that continued freight disruptions could have a negative impact on their businesses.”
NorthLink said swell issues at Aberdeen Harbour and the spring tides have not helped, and that the past two weeks were not representative of the general situation as, over the past year, 96.5 per cent of the freight service arrivals had been on time.
“We are constantly reviewing our operations and the levels of service we provide and it’s a matter of great concern for us that some of our customers are dissatisfied. Over the past fortnight we have reviewed the performance of the freight vessels and, indeed, have sought additional reviews from our freight contractor Seatruck Ferries.”
The spokesman continued: “By law it is for masters to decide whether to sail or not and after conducting their own inquiries at our request, Seatruck are satisfied that their masters on <i>Helliar </i>and <i>Hildasay </i>made the right decisions on when to sail, when to cancel and when to proceed at reduced speed.
“It’s wrong to suggest that freight ship masters have not been sufficiently bold when deciding how to proceed. Indeed Hildasay has been operation with us for over a year without complaint. Helliar, sister ship to Hildasay, although having been on the route for just a month during which we have experienced particularly poor weather, operates to the same service criteria.”
• Meanwhile NorthLink’s passenger ferry Hrossey was delayed leaving Lerwick on Wednesday night by strong winds and only arrived into Aberdeen at 1.55pm today.