China demand spurs oyster expansion in Ireland
Demand from Asia is spurring an Irish-based oyster producer to expand oyster cultivation, but production remains intertwined with France’s oyster sector, according to a leading Irish producer shipping to the east. Based in County Donegal on Ireland’s northwest coast, Majestic Oysters Co. (also known as Speciales Donegal Bay) currently ships 80 percent of boxed product to Asia, according to production manager Des Moore who operates the firm with French oyster specialist Jacques Cocollos.
Moore notes it’s a “challenge” producing large oysters preferred by Asian buyers, but believes Ireland is best placed to meet demand.
“Ireland offers more potential than France and with having five sites in Ireland a supply should always be possible. Indeed any large Majestic oysters coming from France probably have originated from Ireland this winter. I believe Irish output will increase while French output will fall. Cool temperate waters by nature offer better stability long term.” Moore plans to expand in 2014 using new sites and plans to use new husbandry techniques to maximize meat quality and survival rates.
Majestic got a “fantastic response” from a tasting for buyers at the recent Seafood Expo Asia in Hong Kong, and expects strong demand from China through 2014. Paperwork and logistic challenges however mean it’s easier to export through France.
“We can export to China with a French Certificate of Origin, it means that Majestic become French oysters. It will be better to send directly from Ireland to keep the Irish origin [but] I don’t think exporting from Ireland will be a problem long term.”
Also, said Moore, a packing facility in Ireland is “envisaged sooner rather than later. The existing facility in France is undoubtedly better at servicing mainland Europe.”
Shipping direct from Ireland to Asia requires a lot more paperwork than sending through France “but packing Grade 1 and 2 in France long term during warmer months of the year is also not feasible due to stress in holding in tanks and summer heat.”
Moore believes that while the illustrious image enjoyed by French products in Asia is good for sales, it also helps to have Irish quality: “the French have a good reputation because they use Irish oysters,” he said. Building Irish brand recognition by contrast will take time “but I am not concerned as sales are going up each week and the feedback is positive.”
Ireland’s food promotion board Bord Bia and state fisheries promoter Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM) are currently working on an Origin Green campaign which will increase awareness of brand Ireland, said Moore.
Sites for oyster production in Ireland are limited, explained Moore, “but we have applications for licenses pending in the Northwest and West coast which, if granted, will allow exponential growth and create jobs using the best resource Ireland has, which is the Atlantic Ocean. My existing sites in the south, west and north coast as well as Donegal Bay are operating very well.”
Irish oyster production faces problems around licensing under the EU’s Natura 2000 system designed to protect nature reserves from shellfish farming.
“The challenge is whether Ireland can finally get to terms with its licensing problems relating to SACs [Special Areas of Conservation] and Natura 2000. These problems are painfully slowly being dealt with… the problem is that we created so much red tape, bureaucracy and nonactivity surrounding licensing that it has become a huge legal problem,” said Moore. “We should have just followed countries like France and Germany in dealing with Natura 2000.”
Under the country’s National Development Plan 2000-2006 Ireland earmarked EUR 70 million (USD 95 million) for the development of the shellfish aquaculture, though environmentalists have argued this was done without a strategic review of possible environmental impacts.
Demand from Asia keeps Moore optimistic.
“Branding is hugely important but we think we have very high quality and with three years brand building through trade shows, media coverage and promotional material we are well placed to succeed.”