Proposals to abandon the current tendering process and bring lifeline ferry services to the Northern Isles ‘in-house’ have been opposed by Seafood Shetland.
It comes in the wake of the Scottish government’s decision to extend the current lifeline contract until October 2019 while consideration is given to bringing the service into public hands.
The response has also been made following the transport minister Humza Yousaf’s request for a deeper understanding of community and stakeholder views pending a decision.
Figures from Seafood Shetland show that the isles account for the second highest volume of whitefish landings in Scotland.
The organisation states Shetland is responsible for 30 per cent of the UK farmed salmon output and almost three quarters – 74 per cent – of Scotland’s rope-grown mussel tonnage.
All of that leaves the isles daily by ferry.
Chief executive of Seafood Shetland, Ruth Henderson, said the sector’s view had been made clear to ministers.
“At the end of the year, Humza Yousaf announced an extension to the existing contract to the Northern Isles to allow time for the Scottish government to obtain clearance on state-aid rules and also to seek support from key local community stakeholders.
“Our submission to the minister is very clear – support for such a move will certainly not be found from the Shetland seafood sector or, indeed, any of the industry’s hauliers.”
According to an Audit Scotland report on Transport Scotland’s ferry service, published last October, £209 million of public money was spent on Scotland’s ferry services and assets in 2016/17 – an increase of 115 per cent since 2007/08.
Meanwhile, since taking over the route in 2012, private operator Serco NorthLink Ferries is said to have cut costs on the Orkney and Shetland routes by 24 per cent, or £35 million.
Ms Henderson added: “The figures in Audit Scotland’s report speak for themselves. It is in the best interests of a private operator to run the service as efficiently as possible, communicate with its key stakeholders, and provide the best service at the most cost-efficient price. The results of this are evident in the report.
“Added to that, subsidies and the extensive ongoing investment in the Clyde and Hebrides network (in terms of new build vessels and harbour upgrades) are clear. In the absence of a Scotland-wide long-term strategy, we have no idea how much more investment will be required in the west, and how this might impinge on the Northern Isles under an ‘in-house’ service, which would certainly require the establishment of an operations centre or head office based either in Aberdeen or the Northern Isles.
“The seafood industry and our transport operators believe that the current tendering process has given industry and stakeholders the opportunity to reflect and feed into the changing needs of the islands.
“We appreciate that although seafood forms a large portion of the islands’ exports – indeed it has an estimated annual turnover in excess of £400 million – it is by no means the only consideration, so proper consultation ahead of awarding contract is vital to forecasting, shaping, and meeting the particular needs of our community.
“We strongly believe that these periodic renewals ensure that the service evolves. As such, we wish to see it continue.
“We have a good working relationship with the current operator, Serco NorthLink Ferries, and regular meetings ensure a constructive, open dialogue. The company recognises the significance of the seafood industry’s imports and exports on the entire service and has worked with us to ensure that our highly perishable produce keeps moving on a daily basis.”
She added Transport Scotland did not routinely measure the contribution that ferry services make to social and economic outcomes.
“This comes as little surprise when Transport Scotland announces, as it did in October last year, a blanket increase in freight charges without any consultation with an industry which represents 60 per cent of Shetland’s imports and exports and is a significant contributor to the ambitious growth targets set by the Scottish government for the food and drink sector.
“Overall, we question Transport Scotland’s ability to maintain and develop a service that is essential to the islands’ future. The previous iterations of NorthLink, which were part-owned by the Scottish government, did not deliver savings to the public purse and made no effort to attempt to investigate efficiencies and ways to improve the service.
“In contrast, the current system has delivered a dynamic, evolving, focused and constructive service which is working well for Shetland.
“We are certainly not against continuing to have an ever-evolving service – indeed that is a priority for us – but the proposed in-house route is one about which we have very serious doubts and is a move which we cannot support.”
Her comments come as the RMT union is preparing to hold a public meeting next Friday to make its case for nationalisation of Northern Isles ferries.
Last week councillors agreed to send a response to Mr Yousaf calling for the tender to be put out to contract.