A move to make fishing boat operators pay more for fuel at Highland Council harbours has been greeted with incredulity by a Sutherland councillor.
Graham Phillips, East Sutherland and Edderton, slammed the decision to increase the cost by 1p a litre – saying it was “commercial naivety on a grand scale”.
He claimed it would result in fishermen abandoning harbours such as Lochinver and Kinlochbervie, and would also have an impact on jobs with the harbour authority, a key employer in north-west Sutherland.
He said: “This happened last time the council unwisely put fuel charges up and you don’t need to be Brain of Britain to realise that it will happen again.
“Agents for trawler operators are even now in urgent conversations with harbour management over the likely impact.”
Highland Council sells an average of
22 million litres of marine fuel each year and an increase is set to be introduced on April 1. It means the authority is now putting a 3p mark-up on every litre of fuel.
Highland Council Harbours Authority manages seven harbours at Gairloch, Helmsdale, Kinlochbervie, Kyle of Lochalsh, Lochinver, Portree and Uig.
Profits from the various operations pay for harbour upkeep, but also subsidise other council operations, such as grass cutting.
Income from trawlers includes fuel sales, landing charges and sale of ice.
The proposal that the cost of fuel sold at local authority harbours be increased was
contained in papers put before councillors at a budget setting meeting in Inverness last Thursday.
It was stated that the 3p mark-up would generate a surplus of £600,000, equating to a six per cent margin. The current margin is 3.8 per cent.
Councillor Phillips, who has chaired the Highland Council harbours board since 2012, said any rise in costs would push skippers towards other ports such as Scrabster, which is run by a trust.
An average trawler currently spends £30,000 on fuel every time it embarks on a fishing expedition, so any increase in fuel costs would have a marked impact.
He said: “Trawlers come to KLB and
Lochinver because they are closer to the fishing grounds and a quick turnaround gives skippers more time at sea and so greater potential for caches.
“However Scrabster already charges less for fuel than Highland Council while Ullapool, another trust port, charges lower harbour dues.
“So a point comes when a skipper calculates it will be more profitable to divert to one of those ports, despite longer sailing times.
“Anything which diverts the fleet to non-Highland council ports would deprive the harbours estate of the income on which it depends and also employment for the local workforce who unload the catch onto lorries.”
He said it would have a knock-on effect on other businesses such as local shops and restaurants.
Councillor Phillips said he had objected to the increase but had been told by chairman of the community service committee, councillor Allan Henderson (Caol and Mallaig) that the proposal had been “risk assessed”.