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Where next for Ireland's seafood industry?

BIM exec talks Irish seafood challenges, opportunities and targets.

Tara McCarthy is faced with no easy task in her five-year tenure as the newly appointed CEO of Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM): bringing value to a hugely fragmented Irish fish and seafood industry with one big goal -- to reach a turnover of €1 billion ($1.1 billion) by next year.

But McCarthy prefers to talk about opportunities, telling IntraFish on the flipside of every challenge or hurdle there are also big possibilities. 

The global world demand for seafood is only going one way, she said, and that is up. Just that potential is the biggest opportunity there is, she believes.

Last year, the Irish seafood industry was valued at €910 million ($1 billion), a 7 percent increase on the €850 million ($965.9 million) in 2014.

Of this, domestic trade was valued at €346 million ($393.2 million), or 38 percent. Some €209 million ($237.5 million) was attributed to retail sales with the foodservice market valued at €137 million ($155.7 million) in the same year.

Bord

Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM) appoints Tara McCarthy as new CEO

Irish seafood exports amounted to €564 million ($640.9 million) for the full year 2015, jumping 7 percent year-on-year from €525 million ($596.6 million) in 2014.

In volume terms, exports declined 2 percent to 257,360 metric tons, down from 263,169 metric tons in 2014.

Key pillars for growth

McCarthy said while the big overarching goal of reaching €1 billion ($1.1 billion) in sales by 2017 remains an important one for BIM, she'd rather "focus our energy on four pillars," which will provide a "toolkit for growth" to the industry.

After a stakeholder consultation in the early months after her appointment, McCarthy narrowed it down to training and skills, sustainability, innovation and competitiveness.

She described skilled expertise as one of the key areas for the Irish seafood industry to focus on.

The biggest goal is to "attract people for a career in seafood," she told IntraFish, and to help the industry to up its management and business skills, to "add value to their products and deliver this value to the market place."

For that, she wants to develop a road map that attracts talent and offers a clear career path in both commercial fishing and aquaculture -- also in partnership with training colleges, institutes of technology and agencies. 

The second pillar -- sustainability -- "can often be a conflict in the industry," she said. But together with Bord Bia, BIM is working on the Origin Green campaign, which has seafood and sustainability at its heart.

Innovation will very much focus on the goals set out in the government's Food Harvest 2020 and 2025 strategies, which is to add value.

“Foodwise 2025 has set a target of reducing the currently 70 percent of bulk sales with no value added, to 50 percent,” she told IntraFish.

In line with this, BIM’s seafood development center in Clonakilty will provide a platform for more research and innovation.

Competitiveness is the last pillar, which is about "staying ahead of the game. Ireland's seafood industry is quite a fragmented industry so we're trying to create networks" such as clusters, marketing partnerships and such.

It is mainly about creating more opportunities in growing markets such as Asia, where BIM is working with Bord Bia, but also in Europe, which "remains a huge opportunity."

Seafood sales to the European Union accounted for 69 percent of Ireland’s total seafood export in 2015 and were valued at €388 million ($441.5 million), jumping 11 percent from €349 million ($397.1 million) in 2014.

Exports to countries outside the EU were valued at €176 million ($200.3 million) in 2015. Nigeria, Cameroon and Egypt remained the leading African markets with combined pelagic exports valued at €98 million ($111.5 million).

The value of the Asian market grew by 13 percent to €47 million ($53.5 million) in 2015 with the Chinese market (including Hong Kong) accounting for €24 million ($27.3 million).

Focus on aquaculture

BIM drew much criticism over the last years due to its plans for a 15,000-metric ton organic salmon farm in Galway Bay.

The license application has since been withdrawn due to a cap on fish-farm size in the government’s national strategic plan for aquaculture limiting offshore fish farms to 5,000 to 7,000 metric tons.

Its second deep-sea project* is still going ahead, McCarthy told IntraFish, even though the timeline is still "unclear."

In addition, BIM is also working on a number of research and development projects in seaweed cultivation, and is trying to push mussel and oyster farming.

"We're working on sustainable business models and want to avoid the boom and bust cycles seen in the past," she said.

Overall, she believes, the "growth potential for seafood is overwhelming." And if Ireland plays its cards right it could be one of the big winners of the growing global demand for seafood.

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*Editor's note: An earlier version of this article suggested Norway's Marine Harvest has been approved for the license for this project. So far, no company has been approved or been considered as an operator for any potential license BIM might obtain in the future.

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