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.”