Belfast Telegraph

Co-operative looking after Lough Neagh fishermen's interests

Lough Neagh Fishermen's Co-operative is recognised as the largest producer of wild eels caught in Europe. The fishermen who work on the lough nowadays catch an incredible 400 tonnes of eels every year.

The not-for-profit co-operative society was formed in 1965 and oversees the fishing rights of the lough.

Chairman and CEO of the co-operative Pat Close explained: "It was set up to administer the shareholding in Toome Eel Fishery, as the company was then.

"At that time, the fishing interests of Lough Neagh and the Lower Bann were held by a consortium of Dutch and English fish merchants based at Billingsgate in London.

"The owners at that time were primarily interested in mature silver eels that were migrating out of Lough Neagh to head to open water.

"As a result, there was quite a bit of conflict and a number of court cases with local fishermen being prosecuted for illegal fishing of the young eels, or glass eels.

"At that stage, a group of forward thinking fishermen got together to come up with a plan which would provide them with access to the lough."

The group approached a local priest, Fr Oliver Kennedy, to help them to assist them with their endeavour.

"These were people who relied heavily upon the lough and the fishing to make a living and support their families," continued Mr Close.

"I suppose they asked him if he had any ideas to help them to go about improving their lot."

That same year an opportunity arose to purchase 20% of the share hold and the group raised enough money through donations and bank loans to do this.

As a result, they were entitled to sit on the board of directors and this role was given to Fr Kennedy.

"I think Fr Kennedy, who came from west Belfast, knew nothing about fishing but felt some sort of moral obligation to become involved in this," said Mr Close.

"As it turns out, he spent the following 50 years involved.

"Through careful negotiation of their finances, they were able to build up a reserve of some money and that led to the complete buy-out of the previous company in late 1971.

"By January 1972, the co-operative and fishermen had control, they had their own destiny in their hands."

Over the years, the co-operative has moved away from concentrating on fishing for mature eels.

This is because the numbers of mature eels were too low to make it profitable.

They now fish somewhere in the region of 2.5m eels a year, but at the same time, the co-operative puts into the lough between three and four million baby eels every year.

Eighty percent of the eels that are caught are sent to Holland and Germany, while the remainder go to London for the jellied eel industry.

The co-operative currently has a turnover of £3m.

"We always want to be increasing but you have to remember that this is a natural asset," continued Mr Close.

"We're subject to the weather and other various factors that we have no control over."

This includes the fact that eel fishing is a seasonal operation.

Due to the constraints of relying solely upon fishing for eels, the co-operative also owns the rights to scale fish, which includes pollan, trout, bream, pike, roach and perch.

"To date the co-operative hasn't involved itself but this is our objective.

"There is the potential to develop that."

The co-operative has also worked hard to achieve Protective Geographical Indication for the Lough Neagh eel, which was awarded in 2011.

It recognises the heritage, tradition and authenticity of the best quality eels available in Europe.

It means that they were given protected legal status against imitators, putting them in the same bracket as champagne, Cornish pasties and Parma ham.

There are only two other products from Northern Ireland PGI status - Armagh bramley apples and Comber potatoes.

The co-operative has also 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.

Mr Close continued: "We now have over 600 shareholders, most are fishermen and members of their extended families.

"That means there is an incentive for people to look after the lough and to support the co-operative.

"If you talk to the fishermen, especially from the older generation who knew the bad times, they would point to the co-operative in terms of what it facilitated them to do in terms of building their homes and providing better opportunities for their children.

"It may have come about in other ways, but they would freely admit a lot of success they have had through their lives can be put down to forming the co-operative and what it has delivered to the fishermen of Lough Neagh."

Belfast Telegraph