From the shores of Mulroy Bay, hand dived scallops end up on tables across the world thanks to efforts of one local family.
The Gallagher clan from Upper Carrick, Carrigart, run Northwest Shell Fish Ltd and managing Director, Jerry Gallagher, who set up the company in 1992, says it can be a “high risk” but “high gain” businesses.
The pristine waters of Mulroy are ideally matched for the growing of the prized shell fish and it was through plenty had work and dedication Jerry took the initiative to look an alternative to the traditional farming he grew up with.
“Farming was the main enterprise back in the early days. We used to set a lot of potatoes during the 70s when the people were emigrating to the UK and places like that, I always kept a crew here. There was a core of six of us and at time there probably were over 30 people employed gathering potatoes, Jerry explains.
Also living so near the coast and the harbour village of Downings, he learned much about the local fishing industry and went to work on the boats as well.
“I would have went commercial fishing for salmon and crab, lobster and the whole works. I also did angling as well. At that time there was no other boats so we would have taken anglers out as well. Back then there was the Downings festival, there was a shark festival and there was a Portnablagh festival. There nearly all gone now, “ he says.
It was while busying himself with the fishing and potato growing he began to seek out new opportunities and one the presented itself combined of a mix of both his previous jobs.
“Basically where the whole scallop thing came from was, the Department of the Marine at the time, had a few scientists who came in 1979 to put out some collectors for Mussel seed to try and grow mussels but they got a lot of scallop spat (seed). So this was very interesting. I did some research and the French in particular at that stage were keen to enhance their fisheries as they were becoming depleted, so they came over to see if they could get some spat from Mulroy Bay. At that time they reckoned that if they had Mulroy Bay they would build a wall around it and you would have nothing else but scallop production. So, we are a long way on from that now and there are no walls around it.”
Seeing the esteem the foreign fisheries held the scenic bay in, he seriously began to consider what potential was available on his doorstep.
“I though it must have been some sort of an opportunity there is these guys thought so much of it. In 1992, after a few years of research I formed Northwest Shell Fish.”
Jerry has long been an advocate of scuba diving and so he got to work establishing his new business.
“It began by him placing collectors in the bay set up with the purpose of producing 200 tonnes of the shell fish per year.
He explains that there is no quick fix to establishing a scallop business due to the length of time it take to see your first financial return.
“We are using a six year production cycle. You can harvest from anything between four to ten year old, but between six of seven in the optimum. Its a long lead in but over the last ten to 15 years when a bit of a boom was on, nobody was interested in spending six years waiting for a bit of turn over. There was an easier turnover to be made, so not too many became involved in the scallop industry.
“With the scallop though you have to wait a good few years for an income, its a long life cycle, but there are no diseases as such for the scallop so that is a big plus.
Always keeping a eye on the clean environment Jerry and his workers make sure they leave as little impact on the clean water and all of their catch is hand harvested by he and his team of divers.
“That’s the method we are obliged to harvest, which is one we ourselves actually look for because we want to be environmentally friendly, with no mortality from harvesting and gives them a good long shelf life. That’s the ideal way to go.”
Not only are his tasty scallops popular with local hotels and restaurants. They feature on tables of France, Spain, Belgium, Germany the UK and as far away as Hong Kong.
He said the domestic market is good but due to the way transport links are structure, shipping to the continent is almost easier and is something that needs to be addressed.
“With logistics it is sometimes easier to get products on the to European or UK market than it is a to get them on to the local market.”
When issues arose within the shellfish sector Jerry saw the need for him and fellow aqua farmers to unite and they joined the Irish Farmers Association and Jerry currently is the national chairman of the group.
“I got very involved in the whole shell fish thing, in fact I get pretty involved in everything I do, and I was working closely with the Department of the Marine and BIM and at that stage I saw the need for a stronger lobbying group than the one we did have, as times it could be fragmented. I was elected Chairman in 1997 to 2002. I did term then and things have developed up until now and I went back on the executive last year after I was elected chairman, I’m back in the hot seat again.”
All his four children, Shaun , Jerry Jnr. Pauline, Lorriane and are involved in the business in various capacities but sadly his wife Winifred, (nee Boyce), who was an active part of the business and a great supporter of their fledgling business passed away nine years ago.
Jerry says their business faces the challenges many others face working in a global market do but they are working hard to stay afloat and bring the bounty of Donegal shores to restaurants and tables many miles from Mulroy Bay.