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Sean, Elmar and John Nolan of Union Hall Smoked Fish

Sean, Elmar and John Nolan of Union Hall Smoked Fish

 

 

Between the dark evenings and the budget it really feels like things are drawing in. Commonly accepted dietary advice at such times is to prescribe a range of mood enhancing foods to beat the winter blues. I say commonly accepted, because there are certainly those, like Ben Goldacre who writes Bad Science in the Guardian, who rail against the medicalisation of food, which more often than not ends up in encouraging us to swallow handfuls of dietary supplements with our breakfast rather than take more constructive steps to addressing our issues. Anyway, I believe I’m still on safe ground in recommending Omega 3 rich oily fish. Omega-3 raises serotonin levels in the brain, the chemical messenger that regulates mood and reduces irritability. Eating fish to regulate your mood doesn’t lead to an instant high, but if you incorporate it into your diet it should be beneficial in the long term. Herring and mackerel have the highest Omega 3 content and now is the time of year when the West Cork boats are landing herring. Herring and mackerel are connected, in that they are caught in the same way by the same boats and can only be landed at certain ports – in West Cork these are Baltimore and Castletownbere.

This week I headed down to Union Hall to talk to Sean Nolan, a fish smoker who buys in locally landed mackerel and herring. Before meeting Sean I had a chat with his mackerel and herring supplier, Donie Sheehy of Ilen Seafoods in Baltimore, to get an overview of the herring and mackerel fisheries. “There are plenty of mackerel out there and most of the boats fill their quotas at the start of the year, the season is too short.  Mackerel migrate once a year from the north of Scotland down along the west coast of Ireland to breed – by March they are off Cork and Kerry. Some of the boats hold off on 10% of their quota at the end of March so that they can land mackerel in November and December when they are caught as a bye-catch when fishing for horse mackerel. The mackerel we sell to Sean are the same species that you can catch off the pier, but much bigger. Sean needs fish of around half a kilo with a high fat content. If he was to smoke the fish they catch off the rocks they’d look like sprats in the bag after smoking.”

Union Hall Smoked Fish was established by Sean’s parents, John and Elmar, in the late 1980s and Sean has taken over in the last few years having previously worked as a fisherman. “I gave twenty years fishing out of Union Hall, mostly we fished for prawns but we also went after herrings. When I was 17 I was making £1000 a week into the hand for the first four weeks of June. And at that time, we were in every night, there was no staying out. It has changed so much now, I’d never go back to it, especially when you hear about the hassle they’re getting from the department. This is still a fishing village, most people are connected to it, but I can’t see there being much onshore employment from fishing anymore because the fish won’t be there and neither will the work. The big boats now are staying out for up to 3 weeks and doing all the processing on board.”

The mackerel and herring are hand filleted at Ilen Seafoods and Sean soaks them in brine (salt and water) to prepare them for smoking. They are then hot smoked in oak shavings for 4 or 5 hours before they are chilled back down and vacuum packed. Hot smoking cooks the fish, unlike cold smoking, which simply infuses the smoke flavour and creates an anti-bacterial protective smoked coating. Union Hall Smoked Fish also produce fine cold smoked salmon, barbequed salmon and in the winter, smoked whitefish. Sean and his full time staff of 6 also make spreadable fish pates from mackerel and salmon. Whilst most of the fish is from conventional fish farms, organic is starting to feature more prominently. “Although a lot of the salmon we buy in is organic we don’t sell it as such yet. I think that all of the Irish salmon farms will be organic within a few years.”

Like any conversation these days we ended up talking about the recession. “It really hasn’t hit our sales. But I have noticed suppliers getting nervous about credit control. We’re buying mayonnaise from the same supplier for over ten years and always had 4 weeks to pay, with never a problem. Last week they rang looking for a cheque after 2 weeks! They must be worrying about smaller businesses. From our own point of view we really have to keep an eye on restaurants that are only open for one summer – we never seem to get paid for the busiest month – August. You be amazed at the neck of some people, coming back the next summer with a new restaurant having not paid us the year before. They’ll tell you things like ‘Oh! I was only the front man for that place, it wasn’t mine’ and they expect you to supply them again!”

As with many of the other local food producers I’ve spoken to, Sean emphasizes the importance of having good relationships with shops. The company do all their own deliveries rather than go through central distribution and Sean’s mother, Elmar, although semi-retired still regularly takes the van out for a run. “The person working in the store is very important to us and we put a lot of work into that. I’ve pulled out of stores where our product has been shoved to the back 20 minutes after I’ve put it onto the shelf. I can’t stand that, everyone wants their product to be visible but I’d never cover another man’s fish!”

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Frank and Martin Flemming aboard Providence II in Crosshaven

 

I met Frank Fleming and his brother Martin on their boat in Crosshaven as they finished cleaning down from 2 days of trawling for prawns. The rough seas had abated temporarily to allow the excursion but the winds had returned reinvigorated from the south east bearing rain. Frank and Martin fish a 15m vessel that they brought back from Barra in the Outer Hebrides 5 years ago in what Frank describes as “a long trip”. Typical of most Irish trawlers, the Providence II is a twin rig vessel, towing 2 small nets at a time… and has its own on-board ice machine. They land daily in the winter, staying out a bit longer in the summer to make only 2 trips a week – “We land regularly so that the quality of the fish is high. We sell all our fish through Union Hall Fishermans Co-Op, they have large markets developed and so can take everything we have. So as we’re fishing I put in a call for a truck, like yesterday afternoon I booked a truck for 1 o’clock this morning. We clean, gut and ice the fish at sea and then transfer it straight to the truck on the pier.”

Frank, who is originally from Turners Cross in Cork City, explains how he first got involved in trawling 24 years ago. “Fishing grew out of a hobby for us. Myself and Martin were coming down here to Crosshaven to go angling and we got our own commercial vessel. That hobby aspect has been left behind at this stage. It’s a job but also a way of life and I can enjoy a good day when everything is going well.” Although Frank has since moved to Schull with his wife Katie, he continues to fish out of Crosshaven. He explains to me that the depth of knowledge they have built up about the sea bottom and the local fishing grounds more than outweighs the daily commute.

In fact, the commute doesn’t even warrant a mention on the list of challenges and frustrations facing Frank in fishing. “Fishing is going through a difficult period, particularly due to the high fuel costs. We’ve got into a mess with the quotas too. The truth is we just don’t have enough quota, it’s not that the fish aren’t there. After 24 years fishing, for the first time in my career we are dumping mature fish due to lack of quota. I could understand these regulations if it were limiting our catches for conservation reasons, but when foreign vessels fishing alongside us can retain these fish legitimately, it is obvious that our problems stem from failures in both the management structures and policy makers that have presided over our industry for the 20 years. 15 years ago when the EU agreements were being negotiated, we were unaware of what was happening over our heads. We minded our own business and fished our vessels, oblivious to policies being drafted that would have such an effect on our lives. We’ve had the log books on board for years but they weren’t examined and quotas we not really enforced. The result was that when we were negotiating our share of the catch, we just didn’t have the fish we were landing on paper. Now the French can catch 10 times our cod quota in Irish waters. It’s not because of a shortage of fish but a historic shortage of paperwork. Hopefully, in light of recent events we will be able to work with relevant government departments and stakeholders to improve access to the resource for the future.”

The brothers specialise in prawns which they fish along the south coast, anywhere from 5-70 miles offshore. “Ireland has a very big quota for prawns and it’s a very sustainable fishery. They live in muddy ground and come out to feed after rough weather when the water has been stirred up. When it settles down in calm weather they dig in and don’t feed. There’s a great balance in this, they get a chance to recover. We could sometimes go a month in the summer without prawns, not because they’re fished out but because they’re in their burrows. We catch prawns on exactly the same grounds now as 20 years ago, proving the sustainability of this stock.” This reminded me of Sally Barnes advice last week on sustainable seafood eating requiring a spread along the food chain, we can’t just eat the large predatory fish. Frank tells me that cod stocks are recovering well too in response to the voluntary observation of the Cod Box. “The coast of the South East of Ireland is incredibly important as a cod breeding ground. It seemed unethical to see the fish being caught full of eggs. They were very slow moving and easy to catch and so were targeted at that time of year. But for the last few years thanks to a voluntary code of practice no-one from any country fishes the Cod Box in the spawning season. Now there are lots of cod though unfortunately as I’ve said unlike the French we don’t have the quota to catch them.”

Frank is particularly optimistic about a new voluntary sustainable fishing scheme that is being facilitated by BIM with the involvement of West Cork LEADER Co-op. “The Seafood EMS will be an opportunity for West Cork boats selling to Union Hall Fisherman’s Co-Op to get the Fuchsia Brand for their fish. We will have 10 boats ready to adopt the scheme in September. It basically involves 3 sets of principles – Q.P.R – quality, provenance and responsibility. These fit very well with Fuchsia as well. Quality is about the handling of fish on board, gutting and icing immediately and excellent hygiene practices. Provenance is about it coming from West Cork, it’s guaranteed Irish. This is to help differentiate our fish. I don’t want to go slamming imports. Trying to sell a negative message about fish coming in or unsustainable practices will damage the appeal of fish to the consumer. But without a scheme like this it’s very hard to tell people what to eat rather than what not to eat. Martin Shanahan of Fishy Fishy in Kinsale is involved with the scheme and will help to champion a quality product. Responsibility is about care for the environment. The boats will recycle their oil, dispose of waste at onshore facilities and also help clean up the seas for other users like anglers and yachts by gathering debris and so on.”

“The Seafood EMS should also shift our relationship with the regulatory bodies. The boats in the scheme can effectively set the agenda for good practice and get away from adversarial roles. The new levels of compliance being sought on all boats are driving people out of business and most fishermen need a more reasonable and constructive approach. This scheme can help with that.”

Frank hopes that the scheme and the Fuchsia Brand can help fishermen market at a higher level, but it is not all about getting a higher price. “In the last few weeks we’ve seen a lot of positive public opinion about fishing. It’s very important that we demonstrate to the public at large that we are operating in a responsible manner. It is only then that we can make our case.” Well, Frank certainly made that case to me and I was delighted when as I left he offered to take me out fishing to see what a day’s trawling is like. More about this anon, in the meantime, if you’d like to hear more from Frank Fleming, he’ll be speaking at the Taste of West Cork Festival in Skibbereen in September as part of the Stories from the Soil, Stories form the Sea event.

 

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