A consultants' report filed to the Newfoundland and Labrador government recommends cutting the number of vessels in the province's aging fleet of ferries and turning their operation over to a non-profit, private-sector organization.

Twenty vessels — most of them more than 30 years old — ply coastal waters off Newfoundland and Labrador, servicing island communities and isolated outports.

A study conducted by BMT Fleet Technology Ltd., which the Department of Transportation made public Friday, recommends cutting the overall size of the fleet by two vessels.

It also recommends building at least eight new ferries at local dockyards to replace notoriously old and unstable vessels.

The overhaul, which addresses perennial concerns about the safety and maintenance of the fleet, would also reflect rising industry standards on stability.

"We consider it probable that none of the vessels constructed prior to 1990 are likely to comply with the new requirements," the authors say.

Indeed, the youngest ferry in the fleet is 16 years old, while the oldest is almost 50 years old. On average, the ferries are about 33 years old.

The aging fleet along Newfoundland and Labrador's coastline has been flagged on numerous occasions and has been likened to vessels operating in Third World countries.

Some of the vessels are so old, for instance, that replacement parts are no longer manufactured.

The report also highlights the fact that the population of many rural communities has been declining, "in some cases quite rapidly."

The report said various ferry runs should be combined or reconfigured.

Changes will take time

Perry Locke, the mayor of Little Bay Islands, off the northeast coast of Newfoundland, is concerned that his community's service will be combined with Long Island.

"If they're going to cut two boats from the fleet, two communities are going to lose a ferry," Locke said.

"I'm very leery that we're going to be one of them."

Transportation Minister John Hickey said the provincial government has committed to build two ferries in 2007. He added, though, it will take time to make more changes to the fleet.

"The previous Liberal government didn't do anything about it and didn't put any investment in it. What we're doing and what we're saying is we're serious about this," Hickey said.

Hickey said communities affected by the provincial ferry service will have their say when public consultations are held.