The UK government is being urged to “reaffirm its support for the Northern Isles” when reviewing the future of the coastguard’s emergency towing vessel next year.
The calls from the SIC and local MP Alistair Carmichael come in the wake of three recent incidents where vessels have had to be towed to safety after breaking down near Shetland and the north of Scotland.
SIC political leader Gary Robinson said recent events showed it was “imperative” that the Orkney-based coastguard tug continued to provide support around the isles.
Mr Robinson said: “Earlier this month, a ship carrying radioactive concrete waste lost power in the Moray Firth, forcing the evacuation of the Beatrice platform.
“Last Sunday night, the ETV [emergency towing vessel] Herakles had to tow a stricken cargo boat into the safety of the Pentland Firth ahead of the stormy weather – and just a few days later, another ship, this time an oil industry cargo vessel, lost power off Fair Isle.”
The incidents Mr Robinson referred to included the breakdown and fire on board the Dutch cargo vessel Myrte in the Fair Isle channel last week that led to the vessel being taken under tow by the Sullom Voe tug Tystie while the Herakles stood watch.
Two days earlier the Herakles had been in action again, towing a broken-down cargo boat into Scapa Flow after she lost power in the Pentland Firth.
Earlier in the month the Parida, a cargo ship carrying nuclear waste, went on fire and broke down off Wick and was towed into Invergordon by a commercial tug.
Mr Robinson added: “The simple fact is that at any given time there are scores of ships around our shores supporting the oil and gas industry, fishing, or en route to other ports and that number will only increase as the west of Shetland fields are developed.
“Last year, the UK government signed an agreement with the oil industry that the stand-by vessel Grampian Frontier would be released during maritime emergencies, but what we need is a dedicated vessel on hand at all times.
“We have some of the most dangerous waters in the world on our doorstep, and when situations like these arise the most important thing is that help is nearby.”
Mr Carmichael said the use of the ETV in the Moray Firth and Pentland Firth demonstrated the importance of having a “resource of this sort and justify keeping it” .
The ETV is presently based at Kirkwall and has to make lengthy journeys to reach Shetland or the Western Isles, which are also in its area of coverage.
Mr Carmichael said: “People in the Northern Isles could not have been clearer in their view that keeping emergency tug cover was essential to protect our coastline when the service was under threat in 2012.
“I took that message in government and pushed it relentlessly and we were able to secure the immediate future of this vital emergency service. The recent events vindicate that decision.
“I continue to discuss this on a regular basis with the transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin who has himself seen the vessel in Orkney and understands the need.”
The UK government will review the ETV’s future next year. The government-funded ETV had originally been due to remain in place until April next year. But it was confirmed in September that the contract had been extended to March 2016.
Earlier plans to remove the coastguard tug from the Northern Isles altogether and replace it with commercial coverage, were scrapped in the face of strong public opposition.