A Day In The Life Of A Lough Neagh Fisherman

Lough Neagh Eel Fisherman

What is it like to be a Fisherman on Lough Neagh?

Eamonn Moore, a most interesting fisherman, met me at his house…well, once I eventually found it nestling by the shores of the Lough, that is.

All his life, eel fishing has been his livelihood, and indeed, the livelihood of his parents and grandparents before him. As he told me, his ancestors actually lived on a little island (Ram’s island) out in the Lough itself while he himself has been fishing there since the end of the Second World War.

Lough Neagh FishermanYes, it didn’t take me too long to figure out that fishing is most certainly in a man’s blood and lineage….it’s a way of life, an identity, a tradition that carries on through generations.

As we walked down to the shore from his cottage which overlooks it, flies literally swarmed around our faces; I found it very uncomfortable because I could literally barely see where I was going but Eamonn was entirely unfazed as you’d expect, as this is a walk he does and has done every week- day morning for somewhere in the region of 7 decades.

Most of his life then, Eamonn and his fishermen colleagues rise at 4am every single week-day morning; he heads down to his boat, him and two other fisherman from two other families similarly steeped in the fisherman tradition. Their first job of the day is to lift the fishing lines laid by them on the Lake at approximately 12pm the day before.

The fishing lines that I speak of are the mechanism through which the eels are caught; hundreds of yards of fishing line, with hooks from one end to the other, are retrieved yard by yard from the water and the catch that comes with it is removed and sorted.

Sounds simple enough but the thing is, not any old eel will do; at Toomebridge, the local Co-op (of which most  local fishermen are members ),  will only accept eels of 16 inches (40cms) and bigger, simply because strict regulation of minimum size is a key element of the conservation of stocks to which the Co-op is deeply committed. As a result, anything that literally doesn’t measure up is simply thrown back in, still alive and well.

DSC_1426In total, the fisherman can expect to catch between 20 and 80 eels on any one line, with 4 lines laid in total. Thus, somewhere between 200-300 eels are caught every day, with a quota in place with the Co-Op to ensure that this is pretty much the maximum amount that can be caught in a single day by one boat.

The marketable fish (i.e. those for which consumers in countries including GB, Holland and Germany are willing to pay good money), are collected by truck once the eels have been sorted at the shore., The eels are then transported to Toomebridge in tanks of aerated water on board the truck, each fishing boat having its own designated tank on the truck.  At the Co-op’s facility at Toomethe eels are weighed, bagged (put in bags of water and ice) and shipped, while still alive.

I must say I was surprised initially at the level of care and attention which goes into ensuring that these fish arrive at their final destination alive and in perfect health; until, that is, Eamonn informed me that these famous Lough Neagh eels are such a sought-after luxury food product that they now command a price of £8 per kilo. Is it any wonder then that they are so well looked after in transit?!

And what about the cooking, I asked? Well, not surprisingly, given that these fish are a delicacy, Eamonn and his wife don’t eat them on a daily basis but when they do, pan frying them with a little bit of water (they are an oily fish and don’t need any additional oil on the pan!), is the best way to enjoy these delights. Years ago boiling them was the most common cooking method but as cuisine styles and tastes change, pan frying is the most common cooking method nowadays.

The eel fishing season, fortunately for the fishermen given the 4am starts, begins in May and ends in October, approximately. With no fishing during the closed season, it not only gives the lake the opportunity to replenish its stocks, it also gives the fishermen a very well deserved rest from the arduous daily 4am start.

Eamonn was a true gent to meet with, a passionate fisherman, a most genial man and the sort of fascinating character it is always a privilege to talk to.

Upon leaving his house (after taking far too much of his time!), I marvelled at how someone who has had to endure 4am starts throughout his life could be so youthful, so spritely, so healthy looking and so cheerful and chatty.

Leaves me thinking….there’s surely something to be said for fresh air, early starts and fish straight from the shores of Lough Neagh!

To find out more about Eels visit River to Lough Festival on 2nd July 2016 at Antrim Castle Gardens #EelsAreTasty www.rivertolough.co.uk


An Eely Great Insight For NI Chefs

NI Chefs visit to Lough Neagh Eels

NI Chef Forum visit Lough Neagh Eel Fishing Industry

Lough Neagh Eels are famed across Europe for their superior quality with the vast majority exported to the Netherlands and London, but beyond the immediate shores of Lough Neagh and the local fishing community, they are not commonly seen on the menus of our own NI restaurants.

The NI Year of Food & Drink has provided an excellent platform to celebrate our local produce, and in particular our PGI products; The Lough Neagh Eel, The Armagh Bramley Apple and The Comber Early Potato.  With this huge focus on local produce, and a lack of awareness of the unique Lough Neagh Eel, Food NI’s Sharon Machala arranged a group of local chefs from bars, restaurants and hotels as well as the NI buyer from Irelands leading gourmet foodservice provider to learn about Lough Neagh Eels with a special trip to meet the fishermen, sample fresh eels traditionally cooked and tour the Eel Fishery at Toome.  The trip was facilitated by Cathy Chauhan of the Lough Neagh Fishermen’s Co-operative.

NI Chef Forum at Lough Neagh Eel Visit  NI Chef Forum on Lough Neagh

The tour commenced with a boat trip from Ballyronan Marina, and with beautiful clear skies and excellent visibility the chefs were impressed to see the Mourne Mountains, The Sperrin’s, Divis Mountain and Belfast International Airport, the sheer size of Lough Neagh only becomes apparent when you are in the middle of it.  A short trip with Abhainn Cruises to the deepest part of Lough Neagh along the northern shore, brought us alongside a flotilla of fishing boats, hauling their nets and dropping their lines using traditional methods and skills handed down through generations of fishing families on Lough Neagh.

Lough Neagh Eel Fishing Boat  Lough Neagh Eel Fishing Boat

Pulling up alongside the fishing boats, our chefs had the opportunity to chat with the fishermen and learn how eels are caught and sorted, but one thing became immediately clear; the sheer passion and pride of each fisherman we met, one of them describing the eel as “Lough Neagh’s caviar”

After our visit to the fishermen, it was inevitable that Lough Neagh Eel would feature for lunch, a local eel enthusiast, Pauline McGurk, who owns a mobile BBQ & catering business; Dot’s Kart, cooked up a storm.  The group feasted on Lough Neagh Eel freshly cooked on the BBQ in a very traditional way, as well as the very popular smoked Lough Neagh Eel, which recently featured on the shelves of the royal grocers; Fortnum & Mason in London! #EelsAreTasty

Dot's Kart serving Lough Neagh Eels Dot's Cart 5

The group then made their way to the Eel Fishery in Toome for a tour of the factory, where they saw the sorting of live Eels which were being weighed and packed for freight to Netherlands & London.   Some of the group were bemused by the eels jumping out of the sorting tray, they saw the processing unit where eels are de-slimed and gutted before hearing about the exemplary sustainable fishing practices of Lough Neagh Eel from Agri Food & Biosciences Institute’s Derek Evans.  Derek explained how the Lough Neagh and Lower River Bann eel fishery is a rare example of a fishery maintained and managed by a Fishermens’ co-operative, the Lough Neagh Fishermens Co-operative Society Ltd (LNFCS). Common ownership, by the fishing community, and combined management of glass eel, yellow eel and silver eel phases permits a management system with long-term sustainability as its main aim. The bulk of the fishing and productive area is in Lough Neagh itself, which is shallow (mean depth 9m), hypertrophic, and has a water surface area of 400 Km2. Water surface area in other lakes and riverine parts of the system total less than 10% of the area of Lough Neagh. The fishery management regime in place is seen as a blueprint for managing eel fisheries and has remained intact with only minor variation in practices for the past 30 years. The combination of state imposed controls and management controls applied by the LNFCS combine to bring together the elements of a viable river basin management plan as required by the proposed EU regulations aimed at bringing about recovery of Eel stocks whilst enabling its sustainable harvest.

Lough Neagh Eels  NI Chef Forum at Lough Neagh

Finally, Eimear Kearney of Lough Neagh Partnership gave an overview of Eel-Eat.  Eel-Eat is a week dedicated to restaurants and eateries across Northern Ireland putting Lough Neagh Eel on the menu from 25th June – 2nd July 2016.  For details of Eel-Eat, please email eimear@discoverloughneagh.com  or visit www.eel-eat.co.uk #EelsAreTasty

If you want to learn more about the Lough Neagh Eel fishing industry, come along to River to Lough Festival at Antrim Castle Gardens 2nd July 2016, noon – 5pm.  Further details at www.rivertolough.co.uk

The Epic Journey of the Lough Neagh Eel

Lough Neagh Eel

Lough Neagh and it Waterways is not only the largest lake on the island of Ireland, it’s also one of the country’s most scenic and picturesque regions; perfect for fishing, idyllic for photography, wonderful for bird-watching and majestic for boating, it really is a jewel in the crown of Northern Ireland tourism and a hidden gem that offers everything a tourist to Northern Ireland could possibly want.

However, although those familiar with the Lough and its shores will no doubt readily agree with all that we say above in relation to the many attractions and activities that the region offers, something which many people may be surprised to hear at is that Lough Neagh is even more famous all around the world for its eels.

Yes, that’s right eels…..and not just recently either because did you know that eel fishing has actually been a major industry on Lough Neagh for centuries now?

So where do Lough Neagh eels come from?

Actually, they originate in the Sargasso Sea, South of Bermuda in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean. From here they travel almost 4000 miles, a journey which sees them carried on the Gulf Stream towards Europe’s coastline and to the mouth of the Lower River Bann….before making the onward journey upstream to their final destination in the wonderful waters of Lough Neagh.

But why do they embark on this epic journey at all, and why Lough Neagh? Well the fact is that eels have to grow and mature in freshwater habitats, and once they reach such waters, they will remain there for 20 years or more before eventually returning to the Sargasso region once again to spawn.

Lough Neagh Eels and protected name status

And to finish, one further final little known fact about Lough Neagh’s eel population; in 2011, Lough Neagh Eels were awarded EU protected name status – in the same way that Champagne is a protected name which refers to sparkling wine produced in that particular region of France. This ensures that Lough Neagh eels are a much sought after food delicacy around the world, which further helps to put the region as a whole on the world map from the tourism perspective.
To learn more about the Lough Neagh Eel, visit River to Lough Festival at Antrim Castle Gardens on 2nd July 2016 noon – 5pm

9 Interesting Facts About Lough Neagh Eels

Lough Neagh Eel Fishing

Everyone knows that cats have nine lives and a dog is a man’s best friend. But what about eels. What do we really know about eels? How many lives do they have and who are they best friend to?

Here are 9 things you couldn’t possibly know about eels* unless you’ve studied them for an environmental science module.

  1. Along with Parma ham, Champagne and Feta cheese, the Lough Neagh Eel is a member of the Food Elite of Europe having been PGI registered in 2011.
  2. Eels have two hearts, a main one behind their head and another at the tip of their tail.
  3. An eel has an amazing sense of smell, as good as a dog.
  4. Baby eels are neither males nor females! This is decided and controlled by how many eels are around them as they get older… lots of eels about, they become males, not so many about they become females. When eels take on a new sex there’s much less fuss than when human beings do the same. See: Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner.
  5. They can live out of water for 24 hours as long as they are damp.
  6. No one has ever successfully bred eels in captivity or seen them breeding in the wild. Now there’s a challenge for the paparazzi.
  7. Silver eels do not swim in a straight line across the ocean but undertake a 600m vertical descent and ascent everyday on their way across the Atlantic. #ScenicRoute
  8. Eels have 4 lives
  9. Eels are a sea horse’s best friend

*Two of the following facts have been made up to suit the introduction of this eel-based listicle.