LO­CAL HE­ROES Oys­ter farm­ing de­liv­ers fresh suc­cess for seafood vet­er­ans

Long-es­tab­lished fam­ily firm’s new ven­ture has wowed food crit­ics, writes John Crad­den

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Business & Appointments - - FRONT PAGE -

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 coun- ter­feit­ing. “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.”

John and Rose­mary Rooney from Rooney Fish in Newry pic­tured with their Mill­bay Oys­ters in Din­gle, Co Kerry. Photo: Don Mac­mona­gle

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