Oyster farmer Andrew Rooney is hoping the planners will back his ambitious proposals to expand his Millbay Oysters business on Carlingford Lough in response to the growing international demand for his molluscs now rated the tastiest in Ireland and among the world’s very best.
Oysters harvested by Andrew and his team at Millbay, located on the northern shores of Carlingford Lough, are now prized by five-star restaurants and high-end hotels especially in France and China.
Their success has resulted in Northern Ireland winning international recognition for premium oysters, a food not previously associated with Northern Ireland in global gastronomic circles.
While it’s a shellfish most closely associated with France, many oysters served in top restaurants in Paris and other centres come from Ireland and are being sourced increasingly from Carlingford Lough farms, especially Millbay, by quality conscious French wholesalers.
Interestingly, however, oysters were part of the diet of the poor in Belfast back in the 19th century and shells have been recovered around Bank Street. The oysters were sold by sailors, ‘the fadgies’, Irish speakers from the Gaeltacht on Omeath, who settled near Smithfield after the Irish Famine in 1845.
Growth in Millbay exports has been influenced by the verdicts of food experts who acclaimed the oysters as Ireland’s best in the Blas na hEireann, the Irish National Food Awards, and by the coveted three stars in the UK Great Taste Awards over the past two years.
The unique oysters were described by food experts in the recent Great Taste Awards as “large succulent oysters” and “a great oyster” with a ”joyous sweetness that’s like diving into the Pacific Ocean”. Other plaudits included “exquisite”, and “absolutely breathtaking”.
“We really do need planning permission urgently to enable us to grow the business in response of the huge demand for our oysters,” says Andrew. “Our Millbay oysters are now being enjoyed by diners in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, the three centres where we now have distributors. They’ve also featured at high profile events in the British High Commission in Hong Kong,” he explains.
“While I’ve been travelling to trade shows in China for many years and have developed business for Rooney Fish seafood and shellfish, our family business, the first sales of my Millbay oysters were agreed only just before Christmas of 2018. The business for oysters has grown substantially and now accounts for 25 percent of sales,” he adds.
He continues: “There’s now a massive and exciting business opportunity for our Millbay oysters developing in China which could lead to even faster growth in other centres there. It’s an exacting marketplace in which people expect and demand the consistent quality, appealing appearance and superb taste we are able to provide. We now have exciting orders for a substantial growth of the business there,” he adds.
Managing director of Rooney Fish in Kilkeel, Northern Ireland’s leading exporter of fish and shellfish, Andrew attributes the success of the Millbay oysters to the high meat content and rich texture.
“Our farming techniques are focusing on maximising meat content,” he says. “Our meat yield is generally 22 percent, which is greater than most of our competitors. Existing and potential customers are increasingly recognising this quality. As result, demand for the oysters especially in China is extremely strong. We’ve got to be able, therefore, to guarantee them supply of quality oysters,” he adds.
He has a wealth of experience in exporting seafood from his role at Rooney Fish, established by father John and mother Rosemary in 1975. Andrew now runs both successful businesses.
Andrew established the oyster farm in 2014 as an extension to his role with Rooney Fish and especially his focus on growing sales of fish and shellfish abroad in highly competitive markets such as China, Japan and South Korea.
The business had been focused on processing whole langoustines, Dublin Bay prawns, frozen and cooked for retailers particularly in France. Quotas implemented under the EU Common Fisheries policy forced a switch to other shellfish species, including scallops, crabs, lobsters and whelks. Crab claws continue to be exported successfully to China, whelks to South Korea and crab meat and other seafood to Japan.
Rooney Fish is now the second biggest exporter of brown crab meat to China. Products also appear in Tokyo’s famed sushi bars. Kilkeel whelks are loved in South Korea.
The oyster farm marked a further diversification of the business into the fast-growing aquaculture sector, an opportunity the company, which now employs 50 people in Kilkeel, had identified during export trips. Carlingford Lough was the perfect location because of its pristine waters. The farm covers 36 acres and is already one of the biggest on the island. “I’ve got the business to justify the scale of expansion we are seeking,” adds Andrew.
The company has relationships with about 30 distributors, and connections to offices in Spain, Italy and China and another in London that has bases all over Asia. As a result, Millbay Oysters is poised for faster growth in China and other parts of the world.