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.
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.
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
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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