Fishing News: Ferry Fiasco – 11 October 2023


The UK’s made up of many islands not just Great Britain, and there’s also plenty archipelagos, as the fishing community knows with many based there down through centuries not just generations. They require ferries and they’re not a luxury but a lifeline.

Cancellation for bad weather’s understood by those who also navigate the waters. The occasional breakdown’s similarly understood but the increasing pressures of frequent sailings terminated by a ship with engine problems, or the regular vessel directed to cover another route viewed as more urgent’ s simply unacceptable.

But that’s become the norm for many communities now, but the impact goes more widely in the fishing sector as shipbuilding skills are scarce and the loss of a further yard would be calamitous. The average age of a worker at Ferguson’s in Port Glasgow is now over 55, that’s compounded by contract labour being brought in from Romania.

How absurd then when yards lie empty or youngsters cry out for a trade that contracts are given to Turkiye, Poland or wherever. It’s why the Ferry Fiasco matters not just to these fishing communities but to the entire fishing sector. There’s a need for more yards and the skills they require and produce. Requiring going abroad for fishing boats is as perverse as it is for ferries when you’re an island nation, but we have seen UK fishing skippers building in Denmark, Spain, Croatia and even Vietnam in the last few years, such is the queue at our few remaining UK fishing boat builders. As with the ownership of ports and harbours there’s something gone seriously wrong. Builders such as Macduff Shipyards are doing a magnificent job. Keeping skills alive and training a new generation but that is in spite of government policy, not because of it.

In a country where there’s communities crying out for a fast and reliable service and a yard operating on the Clyde, with room for expansion, it should be a “no brainer” to join the two together. Build the ferries there, expand up the Clyde or elsewhere, and upgrade the ferry services on a rolling basis. Work for the yards and the communities based around them like Greenock and Port Glasgow and salvation for the fishing sector in island communities such as Barra, the Uists, Mull and Arran.

Instead, island businesses struggle to cope with cancellations, which as the fishing sector knows can be calamitous for perishable stock. Similarly, the last shipyard on the Lower Clyde, an area synonymous with the industry, stands threatened with closure.

What’s gone wrong. Let me explain to readers who may be bemused by such lunacy. Firstly, I exculpate the workforce both Cal Mac crew and Fergusons workers. Both are doing their best and it’s decisions made far above them that have caused this travesty. Secondly, I excuse Jim McColl, the billionaire who initially bought the yard before it was taken into public ownership. I’m not usually aligned with the very wealthy, but he’s been scapegoated wrongly and is also part of the solution.

Back in 2014 McColl bought and saved the yard from closure. That was the right thing. He had longer term plans to expand not just the yard but into adjacent docks where port owners have allowed them to lie fallow, and even further up the Clyde. All good you’d think. Then the Scottish Government decided to give the orders for the two ships currently causing all the issues. That again was the right thing to do. Why give your business abroad when you have need at home?

But they’re building the wrong ships and they rushed the order leaving the contract lacking in specification. Blame for the former rests with CMAL, the procurement agency for Cal Mac vessels, and for the latter with Scottish Government Ministers who forced CMAL to sign off the contract to soon. But even with the latter aspect the dead hand of CMAL is all over other actions.

Who are they? Well, they’re a board of corporate types established when it was EU rules to insist on tendering ferry routes. They’re need is long gone and their actions are damaging. It was they who sought dual fuel LNG/MDO vessels despite ships of this size not using them. They’ve proven problematic to say the least and even infrastructure to provide for them doesn’t yet exist. It’s also suggested that Cal mac didn’t want them.

These are simply the wrong ships and not just in engine design. Catamarans are wanted by the community and a design’s available from a sympathetic ship designer. They are cheaper to build, less expensive to run, faster in crossing and larger in passenger and freight capacity.

Compounding that initial error, the Scottish Government forced CMAL to sign off the deal with McColl before the contract was specific on all issues. With a flawed engine design and the contract lacking in specification costs were only ever going to rise. As it was the government sided with CMAL and McColl departed. We now have a situation where they’re still trying to finish off the first of these ferries and many doubt if they’ll ever sail.

So, what should be done? Get rid of CMAL, they’re an unnecessary quango who have failed. Stop this design, leasing in from abroad initially until the right design can be ensured. In the interim build the small isles ferries at Fergusons which are smaller ships. Then as the yard picks up and expansion can take place, build the right ferries at Fergusons and on other sites.

Fishing communities need those ferries and the fishing sector those skills. It’s not rocket science to provide communities the ships they need from yards in communities that require that work and have those skills.