Treasures from the sea

Irish salmon has an appreciative audience throughout the Middle East, but one Irish producer saw an opening for a fish of a different variety

Article appeared in issue 1, 2021

Island Seafoods was founded in 1986 by the O’Donnell family in Killybegs and it now processes a range of pelagic fish including mackerel, herring, sprat, horse mackerel, boarfish and blue whiting bound for China, Japan, Europe and Africa. This is only one aspect of the business, as Michael O’Donnell, business development and marketing director, explains. “We also do secondary processing, mackerel fillets, food service packs, and 10kg tubs of salted herring – we do those for Ramadan and send them to Iraq, Iran and Palestine.”

The family added another string to its bow in 2009 when it launched its retail brand, Atlantic Treasures. “As the younger generation were coming up, they weren’t choosing seafood.” In response, the family company took steps to attract these consumers: “We wanted the products to have a convenience element and to add spices and glazes, to offer something that hadn’t been done in the market.

“We worked with the St. Angela’s Food College in Sligo and came up with two products: the honey and mustard smoked mackerel, and the ginger, chilli and lime smoked mackerel. Then we added a maple wood smoked mackerel and four seasons peppered mackerel. It’s hot smoked so you can eat it cold in a salad or have it hot. My father calls it a healthy fast food.” The company’s point of difference, he says, is buying directly from the boats, and smoking in-house. “Our quality manager is on the floor, picking out the best pieces, ensuring the fat content is just right for smoking.” 

In 2015, Atlantic Treasures began working with an agent in the Middle East and has secured shelf space in retailers Choithrams and Kibsons in Dubai and Qatar. “Back then we were very green around how it worked and it’s very hard to get into a market like the UAE unless you have someone there who knows what they are talking about. We went out there and did store audits. We did our research, we knew the product would work in the market, and we met with people who were interested. But we didn’t know about taxes, duties, labelling: it was too much. We are a small business, and we didn’t have the budget or the time to learn. Premier Brands International helped us to figure things out. They are more attuned to the market, and for anyone starting out, you need that.”

The UAE welcomes Irish seafood, he says, and much of that is down to the messaging around the quality of the offering. “Irish seafood throughout the world has a good reputation as being premium and of good quality. Bord Bia (the Irish Food Board) do a great job promoting Irish seafood, in the UAE especially. Every trade show where Bord Bia has a presence, it makes a big difference. Their professionalism outshines a lot of other countries.”

The family-run business story is also attractive to buyers in the region. “When we attend trade shows, it’s always myself and my father. Family is always a good selling point.”

As to the future, the company is looking at expanding its stockists and its range. “We want to build on the stores that we have and build on the range. Our next step is to look at getting salmon products into stores. The hard part was getting the mackerel in because it isn’t as well-known as salmon, but the salmon market is quite flooded. As we build our name over there, and people recognise the brand, we can move into other products.”