John Shine upping Ireland's tuna game with locally-sourced products
Irishman John Shine is making inroads into the commercial world of mass-produced tuna, and gaining rave reviews and consumer loyalty for his line of gourmet preserved products.
A fisherman for 20 years in his youth, before moving ashore to help bring up a young family, Shine first got into the fish export business, then ran an award-winning fish-and-chip shop in Killybegs, on the west coast of Ireland. Two decades later, Shine was ready for a new project to keep him active in semi-retirement. So he founded Killybegs Catch Ltd., which trades as Shines Seafood.
“The kids had all grown up, and I wanted a change from selling fish and chips, but because the fish trade is in my blood, I knew I wanted to do something related to the sea,” he told SeafoodSource.
By chance, Shine received a gift of preserved albacore tuna from Spain, and his family were impressed by the taste and texture.
“I looked into importing and selling the product in Ireland, then found out that the tuna were caught off our coast, but were all exported to Spain,” he said. “We have the best albacore on our doorstep, but bring in the cheapest canned skipjack tuna from the Far East, which means it has a massive carbon footprint. It didn’t make sense to me.”
Shine’s research uncovered a thriving seasonal fishery for albacore off the west coast of Ireland – in 2020, the quota was 2,850 metric tons – with 24 boats pair-trawling for tuna. He ascertained that mercury levels in these fish are 50 to 60 times less than in tuna caught in the Pacific, which, he reasoned, could reassure consumers concerned by scare stories.
“With fish sourced, the next hurdle was to find a processor who could produce a quality tuna product, like the one I had enjoyed from Spain,” he said.
The task proved to be more problematic that he had anticipated, because the uncertainty of annual quotas means that the volume landed into Ireland cannot be guaranteed from year to year, and the season, at just six weeks in length, is very short. As a result, Shine looked further afield and started working with a factory in Spain, entering into a joint venture to process a range of high-end tuna and sardine products, many of which are packaged in high-quality glass jars.
“I keep in touch with the fishing boats on a daily basis, to find out what they have caught and ensure that it is being carefully handled,” he said. “The fishermen make short trawls with small nets, which means the tuna have no bruising. Damaged or bruised fish are okay for canning, but are not suitable to be sold in a glass jar.”
The Irish boats land fresh fish regularly into ports in northern France, Ireland, and northern Spain, where the fish is transported to the factory as fast as possible to maintain quality and freshness. The season runs from July to September and is “full on,” Shine said. In that short period, he needs to purchase, process, and stockpile enough fish to meet his requirements.
When he started the new business five years ago with his wife, Marianne, and daughter, Ciara, Shine found that people laughed at him, because his Wild Irish Albacore Tuna was more expensive than most preserved tuna sold in Ireland. Many warned Shine “the Irish are not big on fish,” he said.
“[But] once customers tasted our mild albacore tuna, they found it preferable to aggressively fishy skipjack tuna, and appreciated why it is more expensive,” he said.
Still, Shine said it was hard for his firm to get a foot in the door of retailers, who thought that one tuna product was much the same as any other.
“Buyers were not aware that Irish fishermen catch tuna, let alone the quality of the product,” he said. “[But] it’s about price versus perceived value versus quality, and I know that customers will never be disappointed with the quality.”
Not one to give up easily, Shine persisted in pushing his product, and gradually began making inroads into retail with the company's Shines Wild Irish Tuna brand. His first success was a nationwide listing in SuperValu stores in Ireland. Today, his tuna products are available in more than 600 national and independent stores in Ireland and the United Kingdom, as well as through Amazon in the U.K., and recently, they gained listing in Singapore. He also supplies own brand Wild Irish Albacore tuna to SuperValu in Ireland.
The company’s sales rocketed up 30 percent year-on-year last year, and this year sales have been even more robust. COVID-related lockdowns have resulted in many people buying online and seeking out a bit of luxury in their lives via fancier food products, and Shine said he could not get his tuna into the Amazon warehouses fast enough to meet demand over the past eight months.
“It was flying off the shelves and resulted in a lot of new loyal customers in the U.K.,” he said.
The company’s sardines, which Shine added in response to customer requests, are also selling well, which Shine attributed to demand from customers who noticed how much better fresh, local fish tastes, even in preserved formats.
In fact, it was a year of rapid expansion for Shines Seafood. The company launched a new website, which had to be fast-track for online selling during the early part of the pandemic, primarily for the Irish market Shine said it immediately presented additional opportunities for online food shopping, such as for a newly created gift selection of tuna and sardine tins the company introduced earlier this year, which has proved popular as an alternative to smoked salmon for gifting.
Looking to the future, Shine said he sees more opportunities with independent outlets such as fine food businesses and farm shops, rather than retail, where margins are much tighter. He is currently looking for exclusive distributors in the U.K. and Europe, backed up by social media ambassadors. He is optimistic the brand will continue to grow as word of mouth regarding its quality continues to spread.
“Today Europe, tomorrow the world,” he said.
Photo courtesy of John Shine/Shines Wild Irish Tuna