Pressure is mounting on the UK government to maintain and enhance emergency tug cover, with one maritime union accusing the Tories of “gambling with safety”.
Nautilus says Westminster has been “reckless” in its approach to emergency tugs, which have dropped in numbers during recent years from four to one for the whole of the UK – with even the sole survivor under threat.
The organisation insists the government should not only save the Orkney-based Herakles from the chop once her specially extended contract concludes at the end of September, but also reconsider boosting the number of vessels that can be called upon during a maritime emergency.
The Shetland Times has been running a campaign demanding that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency retain the emergency tug based in the Northern Isles. You can sign the petition online at www.savethetug.co.uk or fill in the coupon printed in this week’s paper to add your name to the hundreds of others who have already pledged support.
Nautilus spokesman Andrew Linington said the government was being “shortsighted”, and described the possible scrapping of tug cover as “bankrupt of any sort of imagination or creative thought”.
“One of the things they [the tugs] used to do was hydro-graphic surveys, charting water depth. We’ve got some of the worst-charted waters in Europe, and some of those areas haven’t been properly hydro-graphically surveyed since Captain Cook’s time.
“You could – which is what they were doing before – utilise them in that sort of work, which has become more important than ever.
“Ships are built bigger, so their under-keel clearance is much tighter, and the risks of running aground is much greater.”
He added: “It [the government] really is taking a gamble with safety here. That’s what the issue is all about.”
Mr Linington was dismissive of any notion that vessels could be provided from within the private sector such as, for example, in the oil and gas industry.
“Things have moved along just in the time that this first kicked off. We’re not convinced that this kind of fixation on trying to save a few million pounds now is something that is in the best interests of long-term safety.
“Certainly looking at some of the recent incidents off the coast of Scotland and, indeed, some of the concerns being raised not just by us but by marine insurers, we can only say it’s not a matter of if there is a major disaster but when.
“That’s why we think this is incredibly reckless. This is so driven by cost considerations and we have seen other bits of the maritime and coastguard agency being under severe pressure at the moment. It’s all about compliance with the government’s overall spending cutbacks.”
The question of retaining tugs is one that has gathered support not just here but in other island groups as well as in the Highlands.
Inverness MP Drew Hendry agrees with Nautilus, and insists there is a “deficit” in tug coverage.
“Earlier this year, under sustained pressure from all Highlands and Islands MPs, the minster Robert Goodwill announced that he would delay any final decision on ETVs until September,” the SNP member said.
“Whilst this temporary U-turn was welcome, the fact remains that there is still a deficit of ETV coverage in the North Sea. As a result the UK government has created unacceptable increased risk to seafarers and coastal communities alike.
“This call for a rethink from Nautilus is yet another clear message from those involved in the industry that current policy on maritime safety is not working. I have, therefore, once again written to the minister to ask that he listen and not to wait until there is a catastrophic incident before taking action.
“After all it doesn’t make any logical sense that whilst our neighbours in Europe are investing in Emergency Towing Vessels this government is removing them.”
Emergency tugs were originally introduced in light of the Braer disaster of 1993. Following a report by Lord Donaldson, four emergency vessels were stationed in UK waters, with two of those based north of the border.
But following a major spending review in 2010, the then coalition government at Westminster launched plans to scrap the vessels. A compromise saw the one remaining tug for the whole of the UK stationed in Orkney, but fears have been raised more recently that even that vessel may be scrapped. The Herakles contract was due to expire at the end of March, however it was given a six-month reprieve in the hope that a long-term solution can be found.
A stakeholders’ meeting where the future of tug provision will be discussed is due to be staged by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency in Edinburgh next Wednesday.
Isles MP Alistair Carmichael said he would support any moves for a multiple number of tugs dotted around the country.
“My first priority is making sure that we retain coverage in the Northern Isles,” he said.
“I think there is a strong case for cover, particularly in Scotland. If other parts of the country can’t rely on cover from the private sector, then there should be state-provided cover there.”
He added: “This is not a picture that remains constant. As the shipping industry changes, as the economy rises and falls, the pattern of provision by the private sector will change. The government has got to have the flexibility to respond to these changes.
“When they took away the two tugs on the south coast of England … there was not really a great deal of protest. I don’t know if that remains the case or not.
“If Nautilus … are assessing that there is a need for more state provision then yes, that should be looked at.”