Barra’s largest private employer says it is on the verge of closure threatening nearly 100 jobs – after claiming it is being sunk by “weather shy” state-owned ferry company Caledonian MacBrayne.
Barratlantic, which supplies shellfish and fresh fish from the tiny Outer Hebridean island to the continent, says CalMac is running such an “appalling” service it may not survive.
The firm employs 45 people at its processing factory and on its fleet of vehicles – plus a similar number of jobs are connected to 12 fishing boats that supply it.
But in an extraordinary attack, Donald Joseph Maclean, the company’s managing director, said CalMac’s service had become so unreliable that he had now been warned by his continental agent – set up in Boulogne in the wake of Brexit – that customers were cancelling or reducing orders.
Fears firm is being ‘sunk’ by CalMac
Figures published by CalMac show it cancelled 48 sailings on its Barra to Oban crossing in February alone – significantly higher than the 16, 20 and 14 the preceding three months.
The ferry operator says weather has been very poor in recent weeks while crews are trained to judge when conditions are safe.
Mr Maclean said 90% of his £6million annual turnover was dependent on the continental market.
He said “We should have sent fish we caught on Saturday off on the next day’s ferry to arrive in Boulogne on Monday morning.
“But there was no ferry Sunday and none Monday. It is just another example of a problem that has plagued us with CalMac over the last five months in particular.
“There is no flexibility over sailing in weather windows. We had 16 metre boats fishing up to ten miles off shore on Monday while CalMac’s big ferry was tied up.
“It is ridiculous. Some of CalMac’s skippers seem shy, or inflexible, to the weather when it is sailable in windows.
“We are on the verge of closure and it’s not the lack of customers that will sink us, but CalMac. We want a reliable ferry service not the appalling one we have at the moment.
“We need to get our produce to market as fresh as possible. On Monday we had £60,000 worth of scallops, fish and langoustines that were packed for the French market, that had to be unpacked and frozen because of CalMac.
‘Cancelled sailings at critical level’
Mr Maclean wants the available Pentland Ferries catamaran MV Pentalina to be trialled for use now.
He has been backed by Western Isles MP Angus MacNeil, who also lives on Barra.
He said: “We cannot afford to lose these number of jobs anywhere in the Western Isles let alone a place like Barra.
“We need skippers to look for weather windows for the sake of the island’s economy. The number of cancelled sailings is now at a critical level.”
“It is good that Transport Scotland are moving to this position where MV Pentalina is being discussed and looked at.
“I think we now just need to know which ports it can go in and out of, which are the ports where there are little bits of learning to be done.”
CalMac says its vessel was storm-bound in Castlebay on Monday while alternative essential lifeline connections were made available.
Operations director Robert Morrison said: “We are always flexible and frequently sail outside the timetable where circumstances allow.
“Our highly-trained and experienced Masters always take the opportunity to explore weather windows, but they have to look at the entire journey from start to finish and decide if the journey is safe.
“We fully appreciate the impact that not being able to sail has on island-based businesses, particularly when their cargo is time-sensitive, but we can only sail where it is safe to do so.
“Over recent months we have worked closely with Barratlantic in arranging earlier departures from the island side in order to allow better connection with foreign markets.”
The MV Pentalina replaced the former CalMac vessel MV Claymore, crossing the Pentland Firth, between Gills Bay, Caithness and St Margaret’s Hope, Orkney.