“Anyone involved in the fishing industry has to be brave – none more so than the guys actually out there on the boats. It takes guts to go to sea, dealing with mother nature on a daily basis, and everything that comes with it. There is no other business like it.”
Since Kilkeel harbour first opened in 1853, generations of fishing families in the area have been catching, landing and selling world class seafood. Fishing is part of the DNA of Kilkeel, and few people embody that better than Alan McCulla, CEO of fisherman-owned cooperative Sea Source. “I have always been passionate about this industry” says Alan. “My father was a fisherman. Fishing is what brought me up.”
Established initially as the Anglo-North Irish Fish Producers Association (ANIFPO) in 1984, the cooperative managed the quotas of a fishing fleet of over 40 vessels. The cooperative has undergone a number of changes over the 28 years and Alan has been at the helm. Most notably, in 2007 the organisation introduced a sales division, meaning local fishermen could catch, land, sell and distribute their own seafood, reducing costs and maximising returns. Alan explains, “the early 2000s were a make or break time for the industry, and for our organisation. EU rules introduced at that time were having a negative impact on the industry and large part of our fleet was scrapped. We had to do something. It might not sound like it, but it was radical at the time – our fishermen decided to sell their own fish rather than rely on other companies to do it. The bank shared our vision and we got the funding in place to begin our fish sales company.”
The cooperative’s foray into fish sales marked the beginning of significant expansion. Sea Source now has two processing facilities at the harbour and a shop in Kilkeel. In recent years the cooperative has also diversified. “Using our assets and expertise, we have been able to deploy boats and crew onto various offshore energy related jobs from work on windfarms to laying undersea cables. We are dealing with very significant contracts from major companies. It has taken hard work, and we needed very sound financial advice with all this, but we have really made a success out of that part of our operation.”
While the fishing industry has faced a myriad of challenges for decades, like all industries it has had to deal with the once in a generation difficulty of Covid-19. Once again, Alan and the team had to make some brave decisions.
“By the end of March, around 90% of all fishing activity in Northern Ireland stopped – first and foremost to ensure the safety of our people, and also in response to market disruption. It was a challenging period, but the industry was able to avail of support from the NI Executive. We then worked hard to see how we could get back to work – how we could manage social distancing and procure PPE. Consulting with owners, skippers and crew we produced Covid-19 safety protocols. We were able to reopen mid-May at around 50% capacity and we have been ramping up activity since then.
“Throughout lockdown however our shop saw a real spike in demand as we introduced a home delivery service. With many supermarkets removing their fishmongers, people who wanted to buy fish came to us and saw they could get home delivery of fresh, quality fish from Northern Ireland, which you can’t get from the supermarkets.
“People are really tapping into the idea of shopping local, and the fact that if you buy local fish you are not only supporting local fishermen, but you are getting a world-class product.
Northern Ireland fishermen are renowned for landing and supplying quality fresh products, and that is why I am confident we will be able to navigate our way through this turbulent period and embrace the new opportunities of the future, particularly post-Brexit.”
That ethos of supporting and promoting local industry and the wider community is what drew Alan back to Kilkeel and fishing all those years ago, and drives him to this day. “I took the decision to leave the comfort zone of a government job to jump into this sector, and all the unknowns we face on a daily basis – weather, catch, prices, regulatory changes. I did it because I am passionate about this community and the people within it. I want to see us thrive. Maybe you could say that was a brave decision, but it is one I have never regretted and 28 years later I still come into work with that same passion and energy.”
Alan McCulla, CEO, Sea Source/ANIFPO