New analysis has identified a “residual risk” to marine safety in the event of emergency tugs being lost.
Council leaders have seen a new risk assessment by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency which shows a potential threat without tug cover.
SIC leader Gary Robinson has described as “positive” a meeting at the Scotland Office in Edinburgh with MCA bosses, including its chief executive Sir Alan Massey.
The talks, which also involved other island leaders, comes as a game changer for those fighting to save emergency tug cover, which was introduced in its original form following the Braer disaster of 1993.
Two weeks ago the contract for the Orkney-based Herakles, which had been due to expire at the end of this month, was given a six-month extension. It now looks increasingly hopeful that at least some permanent cover will be offered at the end of that period.
However, The Shetland Times is still staging a campaign and gathering signatures on an online petition in order to find a solution to the problem.
Mr Robinson, who was attending the meeting with head of infrastructure Maggie Sandison, said “all and every option” had been considered at the meeting, including the use of pelagic vessels or boats used by the Northern Lighthouse Board to help carry out any necessary duties.
“It was a pretty positive meeting. It was well attended. The Highlands and Islands councils were represented and a range of stakeholders including experts on marine salvage,” he said.
“One of the key things to come out of the meeting today was that a risk assessment had been done assuming the removal of the emergency towing vessels.
“That has identified that there is some residual risk there, and that requires something to be done about it.
“I think it’s significant that they have identified a residual risk. If there had not been a residual risk that would have been the end of the discussion. I think the fact that there is a residual risk means we need to work together to find a solution.”
Mr Robinson said there was “real desire” from everyone present to seek out that solution, rather than complain about the problem. All the interested stakeholders were represented including the SIC and environmental group Kimo.
“The risk assessment that they did looked at everything that was there. Everything was in the area that might be expected to be in the area. There were things like the harbour tugs in Scapa Flow and Sullom Voe.
“All and every option was discussed, and all types of vessels were considered.”
He said options such as the Northern Lighthouse Board vessels fulfilling tug duties were on the table, but that the pelagic industry could play a part, too.
“If there had not been a residual risk that would have been the end of the discussion. I think the fact that there is a residual risk means we need to work together to find a solution.” GARY ROBINSON
“I think one that still bears more investigation is around whether some of the bigger trawlers might have capability. The new generation of pelagic trawlers have a bollard pull of 120 tonnes, which is in the range of an anchor handling tug if we’re being honest about it.”
The new risk assessment will be viewed as an improvement on a previous study which was heavily criticised by isles MP Alistair Carmichael, among others, for examining the unlikely events of collisions between vessels.
It was also, at one point, assumed the oil industry could help fill the gaps if tug cover was removed, although that notion was criticised for failing to take account of the drop in North Sea oil activity.
Mr Robinson said the oil industry was “still in the mix”.
“It’s fair to say at this stage that nothing has been ruled out. The oil industry is in that mix. The fishing industry could be in that mix.
“It would require different vessels. You would be better to have something multi-purpose where you could share the cost. But everything is being worked together to see what might be the most cost-effective solution.”
• Back the campaign at www.savethetug.co.uk