Oyster farming delivers fresh success for seafood veterans
Long-established family firm's new venture has wowed food critics, writes John Cradden
Uncertainty over Brexit may be hanging over the seafood industries north and south of the Border, but one long-established family-run business in Newry is finding that diversification and a commitment to quality is the key to staying afloat in a highly regulated, fast-changing and competitive sector.
Kilkeel-based Rooney Fish catches, prepares and processes shellfish for export, but for many years it had focused mainly on processing whole langoustine or Dublin Bay prawns. Then it was prompted to diversify by changes in EU Common Fisheries Policy regulations that limited quotas and days at sea and also forced many boats to be decommissioned, according its founder, John Rooney. So it gradually branched out into processing other shellfish species, including scallops, crabs, lobsters and whelks.
But the firm recently grabbed the headlines earlier this year when it emerged as the winner of the Supreme Champion title in the Blas na hEireann, the Irish National Food Awards for its Millbay Oysters, which it grows on an oyster farm in Carlingford Lough that it established only four years ago.
The farm, which marked its first foray into the fast-growing aquaculture sector, is already one of biggest such farms in the island of Ireland. The oysters were judged the best by a panel of food and drink experts from among 3,000 food and drink products from across the island of Ireland. It was the first time that the supreme title has been won by a Northern Ireland food processor in the event's 11 years, to which Rooney Fish added two further awards, including the gold award in the shellfish category.
It's a long way from the firm's earliest days, when John took over a trading business from a friend in the fishing industry in 1975, bought a Bedford van for the princely sum of £25, and used it to transport prawns and herring from Dublin and Greystones back up north for processing and export.
From there he and his wife Rosemary built up the firm into one of Northern Ireland's largest shellfish processors, and which now employs over 50 people in a state-of-the-art plant (and the only one of its kind with full EU approval) that does the whole range of freezing, cooking, storage and packing operations for shellfish.
These days the running of the firm has passed to the second generation with John's son, Andrew, now the managing director. John is still very involved, although recent ill-health has forced him to step back a bit from the day to day side of things.
Between them they manage all the marketing of their products, including attending several trade shows every year, but John credits Andrew for the idea of entering the food competitions that has won them their well-deserved recent attention.
Getting an aquaculture licence - north or south - can take a long time, so it's a surprise to learn that Rooney Fish was able to obtain a licence relatively quickly.
"There were men looking for licences for seven, eight, nine years," he says. "I paid a consultant in Wales to come over and do a whole synopsis on the whole of Carlingford Lough. It cost thousands. I had my licence in 18 months, and the guys that were waiting got their licences as well because all the details to cover their end of it was there as well."
That said, they are still waiting on a further licence to expand the farm. To date they have been stamping their oysters with the label of a company called Gillardeau in France, one of the biggest importers and exporters of oysters. This world-famous brand, regarded as the Rolls Royce of French oysters, uses lasers to engrave its oyster shells in a bid to stop counterfeiting. "We grew our oysters to his [Thierry Gillardeau's] specification, and we were very good friends with a company in France so we had good teachers.
"He [Thierry] buys of our oysters and puts his stamp on it at the moment, but in the future we're going to be putting our own stamp on it. That's why our oysters are so good, because of our husbandry with them. We have the biggest oyster farmer in Northern Ireland, and we're well up in the south of Ireland as well. We do a top-class product."
In many ways, establishing the oyster farm is a logical extension of the firm's strategy in ensuring a continuity of supply of raw products in response to shortages caused by restrictions and regulation. "Years ago there could have been 10 buyers buying prawns, now we have two or three. Back then I could have been doing 10000 kilos a day, now we're lucky to do 10000 kilos a week."
So in order to keep its workers going it had to diversify into other types of shellfish that it could process and freeze. One of them was brown crab, which it has built up to the point where it is the second biggest exporter to China.
"It also bought a machine for crushing the shells on whelks to extract the meat, and put in a declaration system that allows it to store live lobsters and other shellfish in a tank for up to four months.
As well as buying from local fishermen, they also catch their own raw shellfish products on a small scale with a fleet of boats that range from 10m to 26m, and which can process at sea, thereby ensuring optimum freshness. Some of them are in Castletownbere in Co Kerry and Greencastle in Donegal, two of the country's largest fishing ports, but the firm is building a very large catamaran for Greencastle for crabs.
In terms of their marketing and distribution, they have relationships with about 30 distributors, and connections to offices in Spain, Italy and China and another in London that has bases all over Asia.
"You don't need too many customers because if you've too many you can't guarantee the supply," says Rooney.
Like many in the industry, he is philosophical about the impact of EU policies on Irish fisheries, preferring to just adapt and keep on top of any new rules coming down the line, although sometimes the flow of information from government departments can be frustratingly slow, he says.
Rooney is modest about the firm's achievements, chalking it's overall success to "hard work, perseverance and guaranteeing quality", not to mention a great crew of workers in both the processing plant and the main office in Kilkeel. "You don't look at it as a nine-to-five job. It's a 24-hour, seven days a week business."
Sunday Indo Business