The Newfoundland and Labrador government could build new ferries in shipyards outside the province, Transportation Minister Tom Hedderson says.

The decision is a major reversal of course. The government had previously intended to have all 10 planned new ships constructed within Newfoundland and Labrador. Two have been built to date. The other eight are in various planning stages.

First up is a new ship for the troubled Fogo Island service.

"We’re at a point right now that we need to move forward on this particular ferry for Fogo Island and Change Islands," Hedderson said. "Any delay will delay us down the road in getting this on the water."

The province will seek expressions of interest from shipyards globally in the coming months, as it plans to build a replacement for the Captain Earl W. Winsor.

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The Earl W. Winsor, which is currently 40 years old, is in for a refit. The Winsor normally services the Fogo Island and Change Islands run. (CBC)

The Winsor, which is 40 years old, serves the Fogo Island run.

It will be the largest of all 10 ferries to be built.

Hedderson cited a year-long conflict with Kiewit, owners of the Marystown shipyard, in making the decision.

The Marystown yard built the two medium-sized ferries, the Grace Sparkes and Hazel McIssac, that went into service last spring.

But Hedderson said the company is seeking more money for those two ships, and a new price to build a third medium-sized vessel.

The minister said talks are ongoing between the two sides.

"We’re getting down to the short strokes, and I’m very optimistic that in short order some decision will come forward," Hedderson said.

Marystown would be the only Newfoundland yard capable of building medium- and large-sized ferries.

Hedderson said Kiewit is still in the running, but the province has to cover its options if Marystown ends up dropping out of the picture.

That means looking at foreign building options — just in case.

"We need to be poised, as soon as we possibly can, to make the decision as to where this boat is going to be built," Hedderson said.

Fogo ferry

Fogo Island has been without ferry service for part of this week, after a replacement vessel for the Winsor broke down. Another replacement is en route.

Thursday's news conference put no firm timelines on when a new ferry will ply the waters near Fogo Island. The province hopes to let a contract in early 2013. After that, it could take another two to three years to build the vessel.

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Liberal MHA Eddie Joyce is questioning whether the Tory government ever had a ferry building strategy. (CBC)

That pushes the in-service date back to 2015 or 2016 at the earliest.

In addition to the Winsor replacement and third medium-sized ferry, the government plans to construct six small ships, mostly to handle runs on Newfoundland's south coast.

They could be done at local shipyards other than Marystown. "We’re very, very hopeful that they can have the capacity to be able to begin building those as well," Hedderson said.

But if necessary, the government will look outside the province for those ships. "We’ve got no choice; we need these vessels," Hedderson noted. "And I think the need for those is just clear to everyone — not only to the people who use them, but to the people in general."

There are also no firm timelines in place to build those ships. Design work is scheduled to be completed this November after being pushed back from the spring, then the summer.

Delays, blown deadlines

The Tory government’s vessel replacement strategy has been plagued by a series of delays and blown deadlines since being first announced in 2006.

Only two new ships have been put into the water, despite promises of more.

The Progressive Conservatives made building new ferries in Newfoundland and Labrador a plank of the 2003 election platform that swept the party back to power.

Thursday’s press conference represents a major policy shift.

Liberal MHA Eddie Joyce said it’s proof the Tories "never had a strategy for vessel replacement" to begin with.

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NDP MHA George Murphy says the government is more focused on its energy corporation than building new ferries. (CBC)

Joyce said the PCs "guaranteed" the ships would be built in the province. 

"Obviously they didn’t follow through on their commitment," he noted.

"It’s a sad day. It’s another kick in the guts for Marystown and the Burin Peninsula."

NDP MHA George Murphy said the new ships "have gone down the Nalcor seaway," accusing the government of providing funds to its energy corporation while starving other services.

"If you want a new boat, you heard today that you’re going to have to wait a few more years yet," Murphy told reporters.

"Maybe by the next election year you might see another one or two roll off a dock somewhere. The real pity about that is that it’s probably not going to happen in Newfoundland and Labrador."