We must harness Ireland’s seafood potential

Seafood organisation Bord Iascaigh Mhara hosts its annual conference today where about 300 delegates will participate in a group of presentations designed to provoke debate about the industry’s future.

It is an exercise much needed for a sector with enormous potential.

In Ireland the narrative around agrifood tends to be dominated by milk and meat.

You would be forgiven for thinking that seafood is a relatively small piece of the food market and is therefore limited in what it can contribute to the economic health of the nation. That would be a false conclusion.

The dairy industry worldwide is valued at about $500bn (€362bn) according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, but the sea- food industry is worth about $400bn and is growing quickly. Seafood output in Ireland is worth just €900m so it remains a minute portion of an expanding global market. Therein lies the opportunity.

Seafood has all the protein, calorie, and fat attributes that position it in the sweet spot of future food trends. Add to that a penchant among Asian consumers for seafood relative to dairy or meat and you can quickly understand the growth aspects of the market. Seafood demand will be driven by an expanding Asian middle class that already, on a per capita basis, consumes far more fish than their peers in Europe or the Americas.

For Ireland to participate in this opportunity, its seafood sector must adopt progressive growth plans. We have a sector that is held back by quota limitations on output, has a fragmented processing profile, has a very limited international footprint, and has zero exposure to the stock market. Does that remind you of anything? In the early 1980s the Irish dairy industry had an identikit profile to that of seafood now. Instead of being mired by these constraints, the co-ops and companies set out on an ambitious programme of expansion.

If Irish milk output was held back by quotas, then processors went overseas and acquired companies where such limits did not exist.

If the domestic product profile was limited, then a move into highly value-add operations was undertaken in other parts of Europe, Asia, and across the Americas. If capital was in short supply, then the stock market was tapped for hundreds of millions that helped finance global growth.

The net result is that we now have a group of Irish food companies on the stock market that have a combined market valuation in excess of €20bn. That wealth did not exist in 1984 yet it produced economic activity and wealth far beyond the imagination of those at the front end of the dairy sector 30 years ago.

The seafood sector needs a similar injection of vision and leadership. Executives with a clear understanding of how international trade in seafood works reside within the Irish sector. A heritage of developing food businesses against the odds exists here too.

Combining these skill sets and adding a burst of ambition and enthusiasm could yield a crop of seafood companies that develop a worldwide capability to source, process and distribute seafood profitably.

This journey will not be without its casualties. The dairy journey involved mistaken acquisitions, business failures, and mergers undertaken in challenging circumstances. Nevertheless, the end product is a group of firms that proudly carry the flag of Irish ability, ambition and drive.

Irish food companies have evolved into the largest cheese manufacturers in the US and the leading ingredient suppliers to multinationals. How far-fetched is it to imagine by 2024 a €3bn seafood sector led and managed from Irish bases?

Joe Gill is director of corporate broking with Goodbody Capital Markets. His views are personal.

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