Orcadian Column 4 May 2023

4 May 2023

So ferries look set to be the focus of attention at Holyrood again this week following the grounding of MV Pentalina on Saturday evening, albeit the attention shifts from events on the west coast to here in Orkney.

Over the weekend, I lodged a parliamentary question that required the Transport Minister to come to parliament to respond and while it may take time for a full picture to emerge, it’s important the Minister keeps parliament and the public regularly updated.

Also important is the need to pay tribute again to the efforts of all those involved in the rescue operation in St Margaret’s Hope on Saturday. It already appears clear that the skipper acted with calm in executing a textbook grounding that prevented further risk to all onboard and the vessel itself. Thereafter, the RNLI, emergency services and Pentalina crew showed exemplary professionalism in getting all 60 passengers ashore safely, whereupon the local community sprung into action, ensuring everyone was looked after and able to return home or to their accommodation.

Having spent the earlier part of the day watching Sir Chris Hoy formally open the wonderfully refurbished Scapa Flow museum, little did I think as I waved off the Longhope lifeboat crew at Lyness pier afterwards that I’d be peering at them again across Water Sound later that evening as they were put through their paces for real.

Survey work on the vessel by the Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA) is underway, and the MCA will also expect to receive the findings of Marine Accident Investigators, who arrived in Orkney at the start of the week, in due course. This will take time but there is an obvious public interest in the process being completed as soon as possible.

Having so recently signed off a temporary safety certificate for MV Pentalina, there are questions for MCA to answer. That said, sudden machinery failures of this kind can be hard if not impossible to predict, an argument I recall being made back in 2013 when the MV Hamnavoe suffered a catastrophic crankshaft malfunction. On that occasion, the vessel was out of action for four weeks, an indication perhaps of the timeframe for restoring services this time round.

Of course, MV Pentalina was only brought back onto the route after Scottish Ministers chartered MV Alfred to plug gaps on the west coast, further underlining the consequences of chronic government underinvestment in ferry replacement over the past 15 years. Sadly, islanders and island communities have been left paying the price of this mismanagement and a resultant lack of resilience within the overall network.

At this stage, the Transport Minister needs to agree to address any freight and passenger capacity issues on the Pentland Firth. As we move into the busiest time of the year, re-introducing four return sailings between Stromness and Scrabster would offer some reassurance that the government is committed to ensuring demand is met while MV Pentalina is out of commission.

Aside from ferries, parliament will also have two opportunities this week to consider government plans for Highly Protected Marine Areas, starting with a Members Debate led by my Shetland colleague, Beatrice Wishart. The First Minister has previously confirmed that HPMAs will not be ‘imposed’ on coastal and island communities, in response to legitimate fears about the arbitrary nature of the proposals set out in a recent consultation.

During the debate, I highlighted again the strong track record of Orkney fishers in managing and monitoring the marine environment and stocks, for example through brown crab tagging, new technology measuring environmental variables and a carbon ‘audit’ of the fleet. Knowledge is shared widely, including with other sectors, yet HPMAs threaten to undermine this by removing management and conservation initiatives from local communities and those who rely on and understand the marine environment. Faced with strong cross-party opposition, hopefully Ministers will now rethink their approach.

Lastly, and on a happier note, congratulations to Orkney Firsts on retaining their Rugby 7s title on Saturday. There were even a couple of tries in the final from one Tom McArthur, who can now compare winners’ medals with his old man, who I can confirm is still shamelessly dining out on his own improbable success six years ago!