Irish farmed oysters, salmon: doing more with less

Published on
November 26, 2014

Limits on expansion of cultivation sites is prompting Ireland to go for higher prices by branding its oysters as premium in the booming mainland China and Hong Kong marketplace.

Five Irish oyster firms are being backed by Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM), the Irish Sea Fisheries Board, to build high-margin sales in the Hong Kong market where premiums are as high as 20 percent on EU export markets, according to Richard Donnelly, head of business development in BIM’s aquaculture department.

Ireland is unlikely to build on its current annual output of 8,000 metric tons (MT) of oysters because of strictly-applied EU rules on conservation of the country’s coastline. “It’d be a big achievement if we managed to hit 15,000 MT,” said Donnelly.

Thus BIM will be stressing the low stocking levels of Irish oyster farms, which in turn means better oyster meat, said Donnelly. Ireland’s average production is 8,000 MT per year, compared to 160,000 MT in France (though this figure slumped to 90,000 MT in the latest harvest season due to disease problems).

Superior water quality and a comparatively unspoiled coastline have drawn producers from France, explained Donnelly. He’s keen that the country’s advantages and limited output will allow Irish producers to charge a premium. “Irish oysters are being sold as French in Hong Kong. We have to increase awareness and appreciation of the quality of the Irish oysters.”

Five companies including Majestic Oysters, Ireland Premium Oysters and Carlingford Oysters have been getting marketing and business development advice as well as research grants from BIM. Also among the five firms, newly established Little Samphire Island is setting itself apart by exporting only Irish native oysters: Bellon variety, which are picked from the sea floor and then grown out rather than grown to maturity in bags.

EU conservation rules will also continue to limit the space available for farming of Ireland’s organic salmon for the soaring Asian market, Donnelly acknowledged. Salmon has been a challenge, “largely due to a lack of volume,” despite surging Chinese demand, he said.

BIM has applied for a 15,000 MT (per year) site in Galway Bay on the country’s west coast and is currently awaiting a decision from state planning offices. Ireland is currently farming 10,000 MT of salmon per year whereas Scotland produces 160,000 MT and Norway two million MT: “The fact that the two countries are able to produce such volumes while retaining the wild salmon populations is proof that farming is not the threat to the marine ecosystem that objectors claim,” Donnelly said.

A Chinese buyer was prepared to take several containers of organic salmon from Irish organic salmon pioneer Murphy’s Seafood but the entire fish population was wiped out in savage storms only two weeks before harvest.  

Other factors encouraging exports include better air transport: more frequent flights between Dublin and the Far East through Middle Eastern hubs of Dubai and Abu Dhabi has made air freighting more efficient for producers, said Donnelly, allowing firms another option to shipping through Paris or London.

Aside from oysters and salmon, BIM is less convinced about the prospects for farmed Irish mussels in China according to Donnelly, who pointed out it’s hard to compete with Chile and New Zealand on a product that’s a lower-margin trade compared to oysters.

BIM works closely with fishermen, fish farmers, processors, marketers and the service sector to support the development of the industry. It also works with the state food promotion agency Bord Bia to boost overseas sales. Donnelly previously ran his own company, Inter Eascann, to export eel to Europe and Japanese markets and was later marketing manager for Pefa.com, a company specializing in the development of electronic fish auctions.

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