Wild Atlantic Shellfish, a locally-based oyster company, has just become a fully verified member of the Bord Bia Origin Green national sustainability programme — the latest from the seafood sector to do so.
It has invested in marketing and technical elements over the past year to strengthen its Wild Atlantic Oyster brand position in the existing French market as well as targeting new business in Asia.
It has a new packing plant in Lissadell.
Oysters produced by Wild Atlantic Shellfish have a long heritage. Sligo takes its name from the word Sligeach meaning “Shelly River.”
That’s a reference to the abundance of sea shells found in the river bed, and along the banks, of the Garavogue, as it meets the sea in the 7 km long estuary to Oyster Island.
According to historian, John C McTernan, there were 21 licensed beds in operation — 10 in Ballisodare Bay, five in Sligo estuary and two in Drumcliffe, with smaller beds at Moneygold and Milkhaven, in the latter part of the 19th century.
Lissadell Oyster Fishery dates back to the 1860s when Countess Markievicz’s family, the Gore-Booths, created a huge sub-tidal bed, growing native oysters in the pristine Atlantic waters of Drumcliffe Bay.
It appears the quality of the oysters were excellent, and they became a big favourite of the top London restaurants who anxiously awaited the regular sailings of the specially adapted well boats bearing the gourmet product from Lissadell.
The fishery fell into decline in the 1930s but in 1986 Gigas oysters were introduced to the bay by the current producers with the result that their distinctive flavour is now being experienced by a global clientele.
Along this stretch of water were rich beds of flat, or native, oysters harvested over generations until finally the stocks were depleted in the early years of the 20th century.
Today, the remains of purpose-built watch huts are still in evidence all along these shores, pointing to the efforts of the licensed operators to protect their valuable stocks.
Wild Atlantic Shellfish is conscious of Lissadell’s historic links to the flourishing oyster trade, as well as to the poet William Butler Yeats, and puts great stock on the sustainable management of this vital resource for future generations.
Bord Iascaigh Mhara has worked closely with the company on environmental and sustainability aspects over the past number of years.
Richard Donnelly, BIM’s Aquaculture Business Development Manager, said it was delighted to assist Wild Atlantic Shellfish to develop its business to ensure this premium product achieved the highest quality standards.
Meanwhile, overall exports of Irish oysters to China and Hong Kong increased last year with first point of sale values exceeding €2 million from a base below €500,000 in 2014.
A number of Irish producers are specifically targeting these markets for a production industry that employs over 1,200.
Oysters are well known for their superb taste and high nutrition, which are valued by Chinese consumers.
The country imports oysters mainly from France, New Zealand, Australia, and the United States.
They are sold in high-end gourmet stores, fine restaurants, oyster bars and five-star hotels in first tier cities like Shanghai, Guangzhou and Beijing, but the market penetration is low.
Only a small percent of local people eat oysters.
Irish oysters are considered a premium product on international markets.
BIM is working with the sector, providing a range of financial, technical and advisory support programmes to ensure that producers are best placed to capitalise on the growing demand for their product.
Oyster exports at the end of last September were just over €15 million. France continues to dominate the market, accounting for over 77% of total sales.
However, the value of trade was 5% lower up to the end of September, due to an over supply of large-sized oysters since 2014, as well as an increased focus by Irish exporters on finding new markets for premium grades outside of France.
As a result, oyster exports have shown strong growth, albeit from a relatively low base, to markets such as China and Hong Kong, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates and Britain.
Total Irish shellfish exports recorded a strong performance during the first nine months of 2015 with values rising by 12%, driven by a 6% increase in both volumes and unit prices.
France, the largest export market, accounted for over 32% of value, which eased slightly during the period. However, this was more than offset by a rise in trade to Spain and Italy, which recorded growth of 28% and 18% respectively.
Shellfish exports to Asia performed extremely well during this period. Exports to South Korea increased by 31% whilst exports to China more than doubled.
Ireland’s seafood sector is worth €890m, with €560m in exports last year to almost 70 markets. Over 20% of exports go to Africa.
France, Britain, Spain, Nigeria and Italy are the top five markets, with 55% of the total.
But the Irish are not just good at producing quality oysters. They are also adept in the skills of opening them under pressure.
Stephen Nolan from Maree in Galway recently won the European Oyster Opening championship for the third time, with another Tribesman, David Small from Galway City finished second and a third Irish contender, Michael Kelly (Junior), also from Galway.
Stephen, who is studying for a PhD in Renewable Energy at NUI Galway, also won the World Cup in 2013. Ireland also has its own dedicated oyster season when food festivals are held in various parts of the country.