A lack of dredging at a Moray harbour is being blamed for badly affecting the livelihood of local fishermen and causing health and safety concerns.
Burghead harbour is owned by the local authority who are tasked with overall maintenance of the site, including keeping the entrance free and clear for boats to come in and out.
They use their own £2.4 million dredger, the Selkie, to do this – but it has emerged it has been tied up in Buckie for weeks due to the lack of a skipper.
Now two north-east fishermen have accused Moray Council of putting the livelihoods and safety of people who work at Burghead Harbour at risk by not dredging the entrance there often enough.
Sand and salt have built up over time causing access problems, which means that fishermen there are inconvenienced as they are forced to carefully time when they can enter and leave according to how the tide is looking.
Earlier this week, the vessel Just Reward was grounded at the entrance to the harbour, and was stuck there for 11 hours until other boats managed to drag it out.
Since it was a relatively new boat with a steel hull, there was no serious damage done.
But Alasdair MacPhail, who owns a prawn boat at Burghead called the Friendly Isle, believes it is only the matter of time before a more serious accident occurs.
He said: “There is a huge public safety concern here.
“Local fishermen can use their local knowledge and trust their tide gauge to time when to enter the harbour as a shallow bit of water leading up to the entrance which is dangerous if it is not dredged.
“But imagine it was a family on holiday on a yacht who need somewhere to settle down for the night and decide to head to Burghead but get grounded on the entranceway and the tide consumes the boat?
“There is a lot of annoyance about the Selkie as it is just sitting there, tied up at Buckie when it could be out doing its job.”
The council’s dredger is a controversial vessel, with a report currently being written up by officials into whether or not it is a “white elephant”.
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It was originally launched two years ago in the hope it would save money as well as generating cash for the authority by being hired by private ports and neighbouring authorities.
Concerns were, however, raised about how often the boat has actually been at sea at a council meeting last month.
Buckie councillor Gordon Cowie claimed the ship had been moored at the town’s harbour without moving for the last “three or four months”.
The local authority is currently advertising for a new skipper for the vessel.
Neil Robertson, spokesman for the Ross, Sutherland, Skye and Lochalsh Fisherman’s Association (RSSLA), who represent some of the workers in Burghead, insisted that the livelihood of fishermen was being put at risk.
He is also in no doubt what the report should conclude.
He said: “The dredger is a white elephant. It is not doing what it is meant to be doing and the livelihood of fishermen is being severely impeded.
“They are just creating more problems and the fact the dredger is stuck in Buckie harbour just adds salt to the wounds of fishermen.
“The local fishermen need to go out and fish effectively by going in and out freely but the state of Burghead harbour is making this impossible.”
Mr MacPhail suggested that the council should organise regular maintenance of the site, instead of waiting until it is in a bad state and taking longer to dredge it.
He said: “Right now it seems like the dredger comes at random times or when the fishermen there scream loudly enough for it.
“If it is cleaned regularly, then it would take less time to get the dredging done.”
A Moray Council spokesman insisted that there is a schedule of dredging activity already organised for 2019.
He said: “Without more information about the alleged grounding we can’t confirm that it was due to lack of dredging.
“There is an established safe navigation channel that should be used to approach Burghead, which most harbour users are aware of.
“The dredger last worked at Burghead in July and it has a full year of dredging planned in Moray harbours for 2019.”