Shetland is to send a delegation hotfoot to Edinburgh to remonstrate with the Scottish government about the faltering shipping service provided during NorthLink’s drydock period.
Industry representatives said today all their worst fears voiced to transport minister Keith Brown about economic losses if nightly sailings were not maintained were now coming to pass.
Another problem arose on Wednesday when NorthLink’s other freighter Hildasay was delayed getting to Aberdeen until 1pm instead of 8am because it had called at Kirkwall the previous night on her way from Shetland to pick up a cargo of livestock. Shetland Aquaculture general manager David Sandison condemned the decision to call at Orkney which meant fish from Shetland was delayed reaching its mainland connections.
He told the meeting of the transport agency ZetTrans that money had gone down the drain because of the “unacceptable” decision to include Orkney which caused the Shetland fish to be stuck on the delayed ship. Livestock could wait a week or go an alternative route, he said, whereas fish was a perishable item.
Mr Sandison said it felt like déjà vu every time the drydocking season came around because of the problems caused in shipping fish and the government’s failure to heed the warnings.
Council leader Josie Simpson backed the idea of sending a delegation to see Mr Brown again. He felt the blame for leaving Shetland vulnerable lay with the government rather than NorthLink, which was restricted in the arrangements it could make to provide cover when the Hjaltland, Hrossey and Hamnavoe take turns to go into drydock.
The suggestion by the government that the council in Shetland should put £25,000 towards hiring in the Hebridean Isles to help NorthLink fill the gaps was “a disgusting thing to ask a small community to do”, Mr Simpson said. He demanded that the government make a reliable service for Shetland a top priority.
Councillor Alastair Cooper, the council’s chairman of economic development, said Shetland should be treated the same as Orkney with a replacement ship drafted in to cover during drydocking.
Mr Wishart said he wanted the government and its agency Transport Scotland to start attending meetings of ZetTrans so it could gain a better understanding of the importance of reliable shipping links from Shetland.
He said it was sadly the case that there was “quite a lot of misunderstanding” by the government during the recent attempts to get cover provided. Mr Cooper said there was “total ignorance” in Edinburgh that Shetland’s economy was based on seafood rather than oil.
Councillor Robert Henderson, who chairs the council’s harbour board, asked NorthLink’s representative at the ZetTrans meeting, Peter Hutchinson, whether his company was under any pressure from the government to make sure Orkney always got a good service because of the “opposition” there is to NorthLink in those islands. He said it was felt in Shetland that the government “bends over backwards” to see to Orkney’s needs.
Mr Hutchinson preferred to leave the answer to his absent boss, Bill Davidson. Mr Cooper tried in vain to turn the screw, asking whether it had been NorthLink’s call or the government’s to depart from the agreed timetable and go via Orkney on Tuesday.
Mr Wishart said there was an underlying feeling that Orkney got priority. However, Mr Sandison, who recently became a councillor as well as the fish farmers’ spokesman, interjected to warn that the media was present and it “usually made a meal” of issues which set Shetland against its neighbours.
Afterwards Mr Wishart said he believed there was a good opportunity now, while there is a lot of concern, to lobby the government and highlight the impact that poor drydock cover is having on the Shetland economy.