£400,000 for Lough Neagh eel fishery to help boost exports
New jobs are to be created as part of a huge investment in Northern Ireland's eel fishery industry, the largest in Europe.
Lough Neagh Fishermen's Co-Operative Society will get a £400,000 boost to be spent on a manufacturing facility to develop high-end products for export.
Five new jobs will be created at its base in Toome, Co Antrim, where 16 people are currently employed.
The new posts include a product development/marketing manager, who is already in place, as well as production operatives.
The not-for-profit co-operative society was formed in 1965 and regularly ships live eels to customers in London's Billingsgate Market, The Netherlands and northern Germany for processing as smoked eel products.
Chairman of the society Pat Close said: "We have 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 with foodies for over 40 years."
A total of £121,380 has also been contributed by Invest Northern Ireland and by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.
Invest Northern Ireland's food and tourism director John Hood said: "This investment by the co-operative focuses on adding value at Toome and the development of quality products aimed in particular at export markets.
"This investment, as the start of a process, will also result in the development of a distinctive Northern Irish brand, as well as other added-value products for export."
Local UUP councillor Roderick Swann said the money was great news.
He added: "It's a very welcome boost for the lough as well, because even from a tourism point of view, it's a very under-recognised facility. Anything bringing employment to that area would be most welcome.
"I was in Brussels a few years ago and we went to a restaurant, and when they brought out the eels we asked them where they came from – and they came from Toome."
Mr Swann also claimed more needed to be done to preserve the industry. He said: "In Antrim Borough Council we are very keen on general development around the lough, which would enhance the use of the lough."
Eels caught in Lough Neagh are served up at some of Europe's top restaurants and are particularly prized in Holland.
In the spring of 2010 there were fears about the future of the industry as the numbers of elvers returning to Europe's rivers and lakes had been mysteriously dropping for years.
However, at the time the chief fisheries officer said the eel fishery in Lough Neagh would be able to continue as it remains sustainable thanks to the efforts to re-stock it every year.
In a first for any Northern Ireland food product, Lough Neagh eels were awarded EU protected name-status in September 2011 – in the same league as Champagne. Eels make their way from the Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic Ocean, along the Gulf Stream to the mouth of the Bann, and then into the lough, where they stay 10 to 15 years before returning home.