Industry leaders from fishing and agriculture have voiced concerns about plans by Serco to streamline the lifeline freight service to the mainland.
They centre on the company’s intention to run only one of the two freight boats from January to May, despite assurances the number of sailings will go up from 18 to 22 a week during the summer months.
Lerwick-based fish merchant Simpson and Ward is key among the various enterprises which may be affected by the move.
It typically buys up to 40 per cent of the whitefish landed in Lerwick and sends around 500 boxes of produce south daily. It relies on a reliable and regular service.
The company’s Karl Simpson said he believed Serco would struggle to react to the rapid changes in the fishing industry.
“Just now it’s bad enough taking a freight boat off at this particular time but, in the future, trade is only going to increase. Fishing and the salmon sector seem to be going well.”
He also highlighted the recent plans to make the Dales Voe yard a major decommissioning base as an example of how Shetland is now, he said, one of the best performing areas in the UK.
“It’s a low shot. Shetland is trying to do its best.”
Mr Simpson said he had been frustrated during the NorthLink years over cancelled sailings when weather conditions, he said, were often not too bad.
“We’d like to see better reliability of service, especially in bad weather. I spoke to the Faroe Isles’ freight carriers, and they couldn’t remember the last time they didn’t sail.”
Chairman of Shetland Aquaculture, David Sandison, said talks needed to take place between industry and Serco if the service being offered was to be fully understood.
“The first thing to say is we need to immediately seek a meeting with the new contractor to discuss the contract and see what flexibility there is going to be in terms of freight capacity they have on offer. We simply need to get closer to the detail with them.”
Meanwhile the parliamentary spokesman for the Scottish Crofting Foundation, West Side crofter Norman Leask, said he was concerned the standard of service may be diminished as a result of the changes in freight service. Transporting livestock on the ferry, he said, was often “time-sensitive”.
“It’s not a case of just moving stock. The stock has to be moved before the grass goes in Shetland. If you keep animals longer it ruins your winter keep in grass. It eats of the grass that’s going to be kept for the winter months.
“I’m not saying they [Serco] are the wrong people, as long as the service stays as good, or improves.”
Meanwhile, isles MSP Tavish Scott has pledged to hold “urgent” talks with industry representatives, and has described the new sailing details as “a cut in service”.
“I will be having urgent discussions with Shetland’s freight industry on whether there is enough freight capacity to fulfil the islands’ needs. This looks like a cut in service.
“A number of Shetland users of the freight service have expressed significant concerns over these proposals and I will want to be very sure that the proposed specification can meet Shetland’s needs.”
Chairman of the council’s transport body ZetTrans, Allan Wishart, said the Scottish government’s transport minister, Keith Brown, had “gained a good grasp” of the main issues at play during a meeting earlier this year.
“It is good to know who will be providing our lifeline link with the mainland, and we look forward to working with Scottish government and Serco to understand the detail of the new service and what it means for Shetland,” he said.
“The importance of the North Isles ferry service cannot be overstated, and I am sure that both the Scottish government and Serco understand this.
“When we met with the minister for housing and transport, Keith Brown, in January, I certainly felt he gained a good grasp of the issues facing Shetland, and his assurances of no reduction in services showed a commitment to continued investment in Shetland and the Scottish economy.”
Meanwhile, a statement released this afternoon from Mr Brown said: “I’m delighted that the suspension to award the Northen Isles ferry services contract has been lifted and we will now proceed to award the contract to our preferred bidder, Serco Ltd.
“Today’s decision will remove any uncertainty for islanders, businesses and staff and they can now look ahead to some of the benefits which will be felt over the next six years.
“The new contract will rectify some of the difficulties we inherited like having to extend the dry dock period to carry out repair and maintenance on the vessels – the new contract will ensure we see no repeat where boats are laid up for unnecessarily long periods of time.
“Passengers will also see improvements to the journey experience with better ticketing arrangements, improved catering, hospitality and customer care facilities, and premium reclining seats added on board overnight services.
“The new contract will also protect vital time sensitive freight transport and crucially, clear commitments that crossing times, including the 90 minute crossing between Scrabster and Stromness, will be retained.
“Serco will be publishing details of the new services and some of the significant enhancements which ferry users can expect to see. Meanwhile Transport Scotland, Serco and Northlink will be working together to achieve a seamless handover in time for the contract start in July.”