Grant funding is helping a Northern Irish fishing co-op upgrade its facilities and create five new jobs. Lough Neagh Fishermen’s Co-operative in Toome is investing over £400,000 in processing eels for export. It previously exported live eels to processors in London, Germany and the Netherlands.
Through the European Fisheries Fund, the co-op received £121,380 for the project from both Invest NI and Northern Irelands’ Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. The new jobs include a product development/marketing manager, already in place, and production operatives.
John Hood, Invest NI’s food and tourism director, said: “Lough Neagh eels, which now have EU protected name status, have long been regarded by leading European chefs and high-end food retailers as a delicacy. Until a few months ago, live eels were shipped outside Northern Ireland for added-value processing.
“This investment by the co-operative focuses on adding value at Toome and the development of quality products aimed in particular at export markets. The co-operative is seeking to build on the existing reputation for quality and outstanding taste of the Lough Neagh eels and will help to ensure that the economic value of this unique natural resource continues to be developed sensitively and harnessed to the benefit of the business and the fishing families who supply the eels.”
Pat Close, chairman of Lough Neagh Fishermen’s Co-operative Society, which currently employs 16 people, said: “This is a very significant project for the society, our suppliers and the wider community from around the lough who are involved in the fishing industry. We’ve established a new processing facility for the preparation and vacuum packing of the eels for sale in Northern Ireland, Britain and other parts of Europe, where they’ve been popular with restaurants and ‘foodies’ for over 40 years.
“This investment, as the start of a process, will also result in the development of a distinctive Northern Irish brand,” he added. “These projects will also help the society, a not-for-profit organisation, to secure new funding to enable us to continue to preserve what is the largest remaining wild eel fishery in Europe.”
The co-op has been advised by the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise at Loughry through an Invest NI Innovation Voucher and is receiving branding and marketing assistance from Invest NI’s design development programme.
Lough Neagh Eels gained EU protected geographical indication status in 2011, a first for Northern Ireland.