Bantry Bay Musselsthe story of Bantry Bay Mussels
Mussel farming in Bantry was born out of the recession in the 1980‘s, when Ireland was a different place and at a time when there was a lot of immigration.
High tech jobs were a scarce commodity and just 2 out 10 of 18-20 yr olds attended third level education. Today, 6 out of 10 second level students go on to attend third level education.
Life was different in the 1980’s. No mobile phones and no internet.
Bantry was just another struggling rural Irish town with little prospects.
In 1981, a local community group, called The Bantry Action Group, was set up to try and help Bantry’s scarcity of jobs and the mass immigration of its young people. This development group became interested in experimental work undertaken by a state agency to grow mussels in Bantry Bay.
This experimental work indicated that Bantry Bay had an exceptionally fast growth rates for mussels farmed in what is known as a hanging culture i.e. using rafts and longline systems. It resulted in 10 tons of mussels being successfully harvested in 1982.
These results provided the first spark for the commercial development of mussel farming in Bantry Bay and the community responded with enthusiasm. Unemployed oil workers from the then closed Whiddy Island Oil Terminal and some fishermen, were soon engaged in mussel farming.
Over the following decade, the initial activity was transformed into a major food business with onshore processing factories and export sales. Hard to imagine at its peak the industry employed 300 people on land and sea and was a major contributor to Bantry’s economy.
The transformation did not come easily because in truth, mussel farming happened out of necessity, so the business was never actually planned.
The industry had strengths such as dedicated workers, an abundant seed supply, and as we discovered a superb natural bay and a pristine marine environment, but the venture lacked the planning and financial support to develop a working business.
Challenges Along the Way
As the first mussel crops came for harvest, it became clear that marketing was non-existent and the boats and mechanisation needed to handle large quantities of mussels were just not there. The proliferation of one-man operators modelled on traditional fishing, was a major drawback as no one had the resources to develop a sustainable business based on export marketing, continuity of supply, economies of scale, mechanisation and bulk handling.
There were early disappointments, crop losses and some disillusionment but by the late 1980’s led by dogged determination, Bantry mussel farming was transformed into a truly sustainable business.
A process of consolidation took place over a period of years where approx 60 individual mussel farmers were whittled down, through amalgamations or drop-outs, into 6 larger companies.
With the support of BIM and EU grants, banks were assured of the business potential. Marketing improvements followed with a focus on live exports to France and export trucks began to roll out of Bantry on a regular basis. Value was added to the product through sales to foreign processing factories and the subsequent development of mussel factories in Bantry.
As Bantry Bay Mussels became known in the marketplace as a quality product with a sustainable supply, the mussels became self-promoting. Companies like Marks & Spencer provided brand prestige and a hallmark of approval that served to increase demand overall, slowly raising prices for producers and processors.
The future looked bright as the processing factories came on stream in Bantry and by 1990 two factories were operating here.
In less than 10 years, a gamble born out of recession and unemployment was developed into a major business based on a local natural resource.
Over time, supply was diverted away from the live continental market and almost exclusively into processing. The product was no longer mussels, but a variety of frozen ready-made dishes destined for the world’s major supermarkets.
The value was enhanced, the brand was reinforced and the supply chain from farm to fork streamlined based on quality control, traceability and cooperation between mussel farmers and processors.
Today the majority of farms have organic status and the majority of mussel farms are licenced. Mussels can be grown in Bantry from settlement to 70-80/kg with up to 30% meats in 18 to 20 months.
Jobs in Bantry are in the region 50+, which includes a local mussel processing factory who package mussels for the retail market.
Bantry Bay Mussels are exported as a fresh product to The Netherlands, France and Italy to a lesser extent. Trucks leaving Bantry on Saturday for an evening ferry sailing can be on the supermarket shelves in France or The Netherlands by Monday afternoon with a 5 day shelf life.
Bantry Bay Mussel farming is still alive and well in Bantry Bay and it is celebrating its 39th birthday in 2020. Make sure to try some Bantry Bay Mussels on the menu in many of our restaurants and bars in Bantry!