Ireland is a beautiful country, with its verdant landscape resulting from plentiful, year-round rain. So it’s not surprising to see rain on a March day in Kilmore Quay, a fishing village about two hours south of the Irish capital Dublin, and a centre for Ireland’s seafood exports. There, the rain is propelled by gales, while out at sea a slate-grey sky meets muddy-coloured surf whipped into white waves.
In the harbour, the fishing fleet has the day off because of the rough waters. Along the wall by the harbour master’s office, grounded crew are hosing down the ‘pots’ that would normally be baited and placed on the sea floor to catch crabs and lobsters. The area is surrounded by low-slung, thatched cottages, creating a picturesque scene that during the summer draws throngs of visitors to enjoy a sunny day by the seaside.
This seems an unlikely setting for a thriving global export business, but it’s home to Sofrimar and its 5,500-square-metre processing facility with 140 employees. The company exports Ireland’s seafood to markets worldwide, achieving turnover of 35 million euros in 2018 with exports primarily to Europe and, in recent years, Asia.
Sofrimar was originally established in Kilmore Quay in 1979 as a French business that exported locally caught whitefish from the nearby Irish port of Rosslare across the sea to France, where it would end up at the giant Rungis market on the outskirts of Paris. By the early 1980s, the plant was also processing scallops, followed in the 1990s by whelks, which opened up exports to Asia – mainly South Korea and Japan. Raw whelks are shipped to Japan without shells to be sliced for sushi and sashimi, while cooked whelks get exported to South Korea for canning to be served as bar snacks.
In the early 1980s Sofrimar installed cooking facilities and started processing mussels and crabs. In 2000, the management retired, and the company was bought by its current Irish directors, Leslie Bates and Lorcan Barden.
‘We still ship fish to Rungis twice a week, and that remains one of our main markets,’ Lorcan says. ‘But we have expanded across Europe to Italy, Spain, Belgium, Croatia, Germany and Holland. We do a full range of products, including live, chilled and fresh-pasteurised, which can give you a 35-day shelf life for crab. We export live lobsters to France, but an increasing amount goes to China and Hong Kong – same with live crabs. But the big growth market has been in shipping live products by air.’
It’s become a growing trend for Irish exporters. Brendan O’Mara, Air Product Manager for Aramex Ireland, has welcomed Cathay Pacific’s direct flights from Dublin to Hong Kong. ‘One of the shippers said to me that while Europe represented 90 per cent of their export market, they wanted to change that to maybe 70 per cent and move around 30 per cent to Asia, to be less reliant on Europe,’ he says. ‘And there is such a premium on fresh produce in places like Hong Kong.’
And although Ireland’s seafood is top quality, it doesn’t spike domestic appetites. Ireland consumes 12kg of fish and seafood per capita each year. In the Chinese mainland, that figure is 48.3kg, while South Korea is the most voracious at 78.5kg. Lorcan adds: ‘You’ll never taste a whelk in a restaurant in Ireland. But in Asia our main markets are South Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, while Singapore is the smallest.’
Amid such demand from Asia, Sofrimar teamed up with two other suppliers to launch a joint venture called OceanJade, based in Shanghai to supply crab, lobster, whelk, razor clams and oysters to the Chinese mainland market plus Taiwan and Hong Kong. ‘With seafood, the issue is getting the supply to meet the market demand. The business is not like other businesses. How we do is dependent on what we get and the weather,’ says Lorcan.
In addition, the products are wild and the stock sustainable and limited by quotas for whitefish and prawns, and by size for crab and lobster. Lorcan says: ‘All of the products are exported, and most of the products are wild and sustainable in that they’re fished by small, one-day pot fishing boats – except prawn and scallop boats that do longer trips. Sustainability is a watchword here. The Irish government has been championing its Origin Green standard, an audit that takes in everything from maintaining fish stocks to replacing polystyrene packing with a recyclable alternative. ‘Sustainability is now a major priority for many buyers particularly those in the retail sector,’ says Lorcan.
It takes just five minutes for fishermen at Kilmore Quay to deliver their catch, but Sofrimar also sends a refrigerated truck up and down the east coast of Ireland – from Howth just outside Dublin down to Rosslare – to deliver bait to fishing fleets and collect their catch. Lorcan says: ‘We send a truck to collect the catch. The boats get back in at 2 to 3pm. The products are kept alive in a refrigerated truck, and it’s live when it’s processed to guarantee freshness.’
Inside the Sofrimar facility, the processing space is split into raw and cooked sides with stringent hygiene controls. With little fishing taking place on this particular day, a skeleton crew of employees are processing some whelks and maintaining equipment. ‘On a busy day,’ says Lorcan, ‘you wouldn’t be able to get in here. We can be processing 80 to 90 tonnes of product a day in our busy season from September to December.’
While there’s not much action at sea or in the factory on this day, there’s plenty going on in a building around the corner.
Lobsters from pots to plane
Just a few hundred metres away from the main Sofrimar factory is a jewel in the company’s crown – the lobster and crab storage facility. Set above a beach, the bunker-like building is where the company is able to keep up to 20 tonnes of live lobsters and crabs under lock and key stored in fresh seawater pumped in on a daily basis during high tide. Lorcan says: ‘Tanks inside are split into three zones – reception, short term and long term.
In the summer, the sea temperature is about 13 to 14 degrees Celsius, so we have to bring the temperature down gradually. The reception tank is about 10 degrees, where we keep the lobsters and crabs for a couple of days. Then we move them to the short-term tanks, which are kept at 7 to 8 degrees for three weeks. Then the long-term tanks are set at 4 to 5 degrees. The lobsters and crabs don’t feed at all while they’re in the system – the colder it gets, the less energy they use. On that basis, we can keep them for about six months.’
That means fresh crab and lobster can be kept stocked for peak demand times – around Christmas and Chinese New Year, all under the watchful eye of Alex Sorokins, Team Manager Live Shellfish facility.
All the tanks as well as the overall storage facility are monitored by computer, with temperature, pH values and oxygen levels recorded. Lorcan says: ‘We have set parameters – if any of those factors go beyond their limits, Alex will get a call in the middle of the night. These lobsters are like his babies.’
As if on cue, Alex reaches into one of the tanks and pulls out ‘Lobby’, a rare blue lobster. ‘It’s a one-in-a-million creature,’ says Lorcan.
This facility is also where crabs and lobsters get packed for export. Lobsters are packed in eski boxes with a cold gel pack at the bottom, then 8kg of docile but live lobsters – mixed and matched to make the weight – and another gel pack added on top before everything is sealed in. The boxes are labelled, with the barcode system also recording where the shellfish were caught, for complete traceability.
Crabs go into a bigger 15kg container. Lorcan adds: ‘Crabs survive better in the big box – there’s a space at the top of the box because they need a bit of oxygen.’
The packs are left in the chiller to await collection by truck at around 3am for the drive to the Dublin airport to be loaded on Cathay’s direct flight to Hong Kong.
Lorcan adds: ‘Cathay Pacific has been a game changer for shipping live shellfish from Ireland to Hong Kong. The product can now be in Hong Kong with a transit time of 12 hours, compared to around 20 hours with other airlines.
This shorter transit time leads to reduced mortality in shipments, and the arrival time of 7am is also preferable to customers, rather than the afternoon when most other flights arrive.’