Marine Harvest Ireland is part of the world’s leading fish farming companies and has been producing top quality salmon for 27 years
Marine Harvest Ireland is one of a number of smaller divisions owned by Marine Harvest ASA, a Norwegian seafood company that operates in five continents across the world. The group, which employs 6000 people, has a 25-30 per cent share of the salmon and trout market, making it the leader in its sector. Its position at the head of the industry was further strengthened in 2006 as a result of a three-way merger with Pan Fish ASA and Fjord Seafood.
The origins of the group can be traced back to 1965, when Unilever opened a research facility in Lochailort, Scotland, under the name Marine Harvest. The site was used for the development of fish farming methods at the outset of the Atlantic salmon farming industry. It remained part of Unilever’s portfolio until 1992 when it was sold to the American owned Marifarms Company. The company changed hands again two years later when it was taken over by Booker plc. In July 1999, the Dutch-based nutrition firm Nutreco bought Marine Harvest for £32.7m before acquiring the seafood arm of Norsk Hydro in 2001, a group that owned the Irish salmon farming company that today bears the name of Marine Harvest Ireland.
Detailing its history, Pat Connors, the sales and processing director, says: “The company was started in 1979 by four Irish shareholders with the development of trout in mind, which was changed to salmon the following year. The Norwegians were the key players in the industry at the time and, to a certain extent, still are today. We struck a deal with a company called Mowi who were the salmon farming pioneers at the time – it took 75 per cent of our company while the Irish shareholders split the other 25 per cent. Having built a hatchery we were able to start importing our first eggs, the whole process, from the egg to the customer takes three years. Once we had produced our first salmon stock we became self-sufficient. We now ship our ova worldwide and also at times back to Norway so in a sense it has gone full circle.
“In the 1990s we continued to focus on improving our fresh water performance but also on our marine and processing facility,” he continues. “In 1999 we completed the development of a processing plant, which is approximately 1500 sq metres. The investment for it was about £2 million; we also continued to improve our management system and MHI were the first integrated salmon farm to achieve accreditation to the ISO 9001 standard, achieved in 1992, further environmental standards were implemented over the following years at all of our sites. We have recently completed in 2007, a 1500 sq metre extension to our processing facility at Rinmore in Fanad, allowing us to move to retail packs and individual portion packs directed at consumer level.”
The organic site in question, Clare Island Sea Farm, is one of the world’s mostexposed salmon farming sites and is the main source of the company’s organic salmon. The fish are kept in large cages that allow them the conditions to replicate their natural shoaling behaviour, as is recommended by organic farming concepts. The European Union has a rating system that grades the quality of water that the fish live in, the Clare Island site is classed at 1A – in recognition of the water quality. The pens are in an area that has a continuous two-knot flow and high tidal exchange rates that constantly keep thewater fresh and flush away any parasites or pollutants. By growing the produce in such a natural environment with minimal population density, the fish are allowed to develop a firm muscle texture and a good body shape. The environmental conditions, farming methods and attention to detail of the Clare Island team is vital to ensuring the excellent eating quality that has allowed Marine Harvest to establish a leading market position
Speaking of the organic stock and the desire to expand into new regions, Pat says: “The Clare Island site has massive benefits for us as we ship the salmon all over the world. The markets are very developed – the two main countries that we do business with are the UK and Germany but we also have Ireland, Belgium, and the United States, which are strong areas. We do export some of the salmon to France, it accounts for around five per cent of our market but we are not as strong there as we are with the premium product. In France they work very closely with accreditation; we achieved the AB standard in 2006 and this will allow us to develop this market over time. It is definitely an area we are trying to develop.”
If the amount of Atlantic premium salmon that is exported to France is any indicator, then it shouldn’t take long to see real progress on the organic front. “We are always busy serving the Irish and French markets with the premium salmon, especially at this time of year. We tend to go for the quality end of the market because we farm in very exposed sites and that is key. We have the ability to produce good quality fish with low fat content and high muscle texture from all of our sites. That is ideal for the smoked salmon market,” says Pat.
The Irish operations, along with Marine Harvest’s farms in Canada, Chile, Ireland, Norway and Scotland contribute to the vast global salmon production; in 2004, almost 1.2 million metric tonnes were produced. The versatility of the fish is a major reason for its popularity, it can be eaten raw in the form of sushi, and cooked in a variety of ways. The company offer its products in a range of varieties including, fresh, frozen and smoked, with the most important factor being a quality that lives up to the company slogan of ‘excellence in seafood’.
Highlighting this point, Pat is quick to recognise the efforts of Marine Harvest Ireland’s small but dedicated staff. Acknowledging the contribution of the 150-man team, he comments: “There has been a huge commitment from everybody here, many of them have grown with the company since the 1980s. Although a multi-national owns us, we are still a small company, but everyone is committed and puts a great deal of energy and thought into the business.
“Our primary focus is to deliver quality products to the customer. There is also a heavy emphasis on delivering orders on time, delivering on our promises, and consistently trying to be pro-active rather than reactive. We don’t just look at what the customer wants now but instead what they will want in five years time. By putting all of this in place we have been able to develop a real service that our customers value.”
In the short term there is an expectation that the company will soon reap the rewards of work that has been going on behind the scenes. “We’ve spent a lot of the last two years working on the branding of our organic and conventional produce, and we would hope that will be rolled out in 2008,” Pat reveals. “On the processing side, one of the highlights of the next year will be the introduction of convenience packs, which we think our customers want. On the freshwater and marine sites the main target is to develop the quality of our stock further. We’d also like to increase the volume but not dramatically so; we’re more concerned with making sure we are delivering good quality salmon every week of the year ” he adds.
Looking further forward, Pat has a clear vision of how the company can continue to improve and increase its share in this particularly challenging industry. Analysing the future, he concludes: “The key issue will be to find new sites that will allow us to continue producing salmon, making sure we have good performances from our stocks at sea and producing good sizes of fish that the smoked market demands. Our other priorities will be improving our processing facilities, the quality, and our branding systems. We have four main areas of work; freshwater, marine, processing, and sales so we must make sure we all work to the same focus – the demands of the customer. This food is very different to other protein sources as the time it takes from the egg to the final product is three years. That is a massively long time so you need dedicated people at every stage of the process.”