Islanders have demanded “emergency intervention” from the transport minister Kevin Stewart as they called for compensation of sudden service cuts.

Members of the Mull and Iona Ferry Committee are warned that reductions in CalMac’s services could force them into “rationing” spaces on ferries.

They are angry  that the latest proposed service cuts will lead to "utter chaos" which will leave communities "strangled" as the main ferry serving their islands is redeployed to cover the service to Lochboisdale in South Uist.

The committee complained it was given just seven days notice of the change, which is due to begin in the second half of May, and it has “torn up” the timetable they rely on.

The issues were exacerbated by the Highland Council-operated Corran vehicle ferry, which provides an alternative route to and from Mull, being out of action until early June.

Committee chairman Joe Reade said that islanders may now have “no option but to consider rationing” spaces on the ferries, as he also demanded compensation be paid to businesses in Hebrides who have suffered as a result of problems with CalMac ferries.

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In an open letter, he wrote: “We are currently unable to book travel on or off the island via Oban until almost June. Pretty much every sailing is showing as full, and not just for vehicles but for foot passengers also. This is absolutely unprecedented.

“Our islands are being strangled during the second half of May as a result of this latest deterioration. Islanders cannot leave, unless they made arrangements weeks ago. Tourists, absolutely essential to our economy, will be turned away."

It comes in the wake of a series of problems which have hit the operator’s ageing fleet.

CalMac is currently waiting for two new vessels being constructed at the Ferguson Marine yard in Port Glasgow – but completion of these is now several years late, with costs having gone massively over budget.

The Herald: Flags are waved at a launch ceremony for the liquefied natural gas passenger ferry MV Glen Sannox, the UK's first LNG ferry, at Ferguson Marine Engineering in Port Glasgow..

Mr Reade urged Mr Stewart to hold “an emergency meeting with CalMac to try to “find solutions” to its ferry problems.

He said: "“Hundreds of millions of pounds have been poured into Port Glasgow to keep Ferguson’s afloat but nothing has yet been offered to all the businesses across the Hebrides who together employ thousands.”

“Whilst ways have been found to maintain current service levels to every other Hebridean island, Mull and Iona are alone in having our only major vessel withdrawn and not replaced with a similar capacity vessel.”

He also told the transport minister that changes planned by CalMac would result in about 250 fewer car spaces and nearly 7,000 fewer passenger spaces on boats to Mull and Iona every day.

Mr Reade added: “We are currently unable to book travel on or off the island via Oban until almost June.

READ MORE: 'Catastrophic': Island 'inaccessible' claim after  70 per cent ferry fare rise

“Pretty much every sailing is showing as full, and not just for vehicles but for foot passengers also – this is absolutely unprecedented.

“Islanders cannot leave, unless they made arrangements weeks ago, and tourists - absolutely essential to our economy - will be turned away.”

With the “ferry system in utter chaos”, Mr Reade said islanders had “no confidence” the MV Isle of Mull would return to its usual service at the end of this month.

While Mr Reade said residents on Mull and Iona were “loathe to make this an island-against-island issue”, they questioned whether it was “really equitable that every other service is maintained at the current capacity through May, but Mull has its only major vessel removed”.

He added: For affected businesses across all the islands, it is now time to start compensating for lost business. "

The concerns come as MV Alfred, the £1m-a-month taxpayer-funded emergency ferry chartered by ministers to plug some of the gaps on CalMac routes, was still undergoing works on a stern door, which has triggered a second delay to the catamaran entering passenger service.

And Pentland Ferries's sister vessel MV Pentalina, which ran aground ten days ago while in service between Caithness and Orkney, remains out of action until at least Monday May 22.

Mr Stewart said: “I fully understand the challenges facing our island communities during this period of disruption to ferry services. This is not just about transport performance in itself. It’s about delivering the confidence needed to sustain island populations.

“Regrettably, there have been ongoing technical issues with vessels resulting in delays to the annual overhaul programme and cancellation of sailings. There are communities who have been greatly impacted and we fully recognise the need to improve confidence in services. We continue to work with CalMac and CMAL [ship and harbour owner Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited' to improve reliability and resilience across our networks, with the charter agreement for the MV Alfred a reflection of this ongoing work. We are also reinvesting any penalty deductions into the operation of the network.

“Operational decisions regarding the Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Services lie with CalMac as the operator. They engage with individual customers, hauliers, port operators, and Local Resilience Partnerships to gather information and to make informed decisions on how best to deploy available assets in a safe and efficient manner for the benefit of our island and remote communities.

“Whilst sympathetic to the calls to support businesses through compensation, our focus rightly has to be on building resilience into the ferry network.”

Robbie Drummond, chief executive of CalMac, said: “We take our responsibility to support island economies and to provide communities with a quality lifeline service very seriously. Our service continues to be affected by delays to the annual overhaul schedule and its subsequent impact on vessel deployment. With no spare vessels, it is a challenging period for our customers, and we apologise for the disruption this is causing.

“We recognise that there will be a lot of pressure on services to and from Mull between 12 and 27 May, and we have been urgently looking into how we can improve this situation. Options include altering timetables, which would be subject to staff availability and the need to operate safely, and the possibility of chartering a third party vessel. Lochaline-Fishnish is also a viable route on and off Mull, although the Corran ferry being out of service is adding pressure to this service.

“We will inform communities once the most suitable solution has been agreed.”