‘Truffles of the sea’ make boutique business for mum and daughter team

It’s onwards and up for Cindy and Sinéad O’Brien, who are rearing high-value abalone in Connemara

 

Picture two women with backs bent over at low tide as they heave large handfuls of seaweed into baskets. Cindy O’Brien and her daughter Sinéad might resemble characters from an 80-year-old scene in Robert Flaherty’s classic Man of Aran, but their activity is very much 21st century.

The pair are foraging nutrients for their respective “boutique” businesses – rearing high-value abalone and sea urchins for export, and now also extending into snackfoods, facial masks and seaweed baths.

Abalone reared at O’Brien’s farm in Rossaveal depend solely on the marine algae dulse or dillisk (palmaria palmata) and kelp (laminaria ) taken from the south Connemara shoreline, with no chemicals or additives involved in cultivating these “truffles of the sea”.

Having built a a slow but steadily lucrative live export market for her shellfish crop, O’Brien is now venturing into new territory with Tower Aqua farm in west Cork and Teagasc. The result is tinned abalone soup under the ‘Atlantic Emerald’ label, which is already being sold in Singapore, the US and Europe.

Add to that the fact that her daughter, Sineád, a law graduate, has also begun producing superfoods, face masks and baths from dried seaweed, and it’s a busy premises near the old coastguard station in Co Galway’s Rossaveal.

Experimental fish hatchery

From California, O’Brien is a marine biology graduate with several decades of experience in aquaculture. Yellowtail snapper, red snapper, rockhinds, redhinds, Grasbys and neon gobies are among the different species of fish larvae which she raised while working at the University of Miami’s experimental fish hatchery in Florida.

 

She moved to Ireland with her Wicklow-born husband in 1996, reared a family of three girls and, in the summer of 2007, secured her first stock of abalone and started developing a hatchery.

“The groundwork had already been laid in Connemara over 30 years ago, when the Carna research laboratory, attached to what is now NUI Galway, brought in two types of abalone – one Japanese, one French – on an experimental basis,” O’Brien explains.

“We rear one of those two – the Japanese type Haliotis discus hannai, known as Ezo,”she says. “We began with 50kg in 2011, grown from the hatchery from 2008, and we are now at 400kg.”

Abalone belong to the Mollusca phyllum, a grouping which includes squid, octopuses, clams, sea slugs and scallops. The Latin name haliotis or “sea ear” relates to the flat and beautifully formed coloured shell, and the shellfish with its distinctive muscular “foot” is known to be one of the most efficient converters of seaweed to white protein. China is the global leader in farmed abalone production.

Access to freshly cut weed and clean seawater are the two essential ingredients for organic cultivation, and O’Brien uses an elaborate pumping system which recirculates the Atlantic through a storage tank, while she also has one wind turbine, cutting her energy bill by half in a moderate breeze. Patience is also an essential ingredient as the growth rate to full maturity is slow, at four to five years.

“These baby abalone are just tiny,”she says, pointing to one of the tanks where miniature black dots crawl along the side and feed on trays of diatoms.

“The weaning stage is from six months, when they start eating seaweed,”she says. “When they are 18 to 20mm in size, we move them to grow-out tanks where they continue to feed on seaweed for another four years.”

Her export trade, valued at some €30,000 worth of live product this year, is small but developing. Live abalone currently fetches about €60 a kilo, and her main markets are in Asia, and European outlets in Spain, France, England and Iceland.

The soup she has recently developed with Tower Aqua and Teagasc aims to add value and develop new markets.

“I felt we should not just export live, and so we’ve worked on this recipe which combines pork broth with abalone,” she says. “The abalone goes a lot further and there are no additives or preservatives.”

The Atlantic Emerald premium abalone soup is retailing from €10 a can, and already it is being ordered “in pallets” from Singapore, she says.

O’Brien’s eldest daughter, Sinéad, was pursuing a post-graduate law degree in Amsterdam when she decided to join her mother on the west coast.

“One of my colleagues was talking about importing seaweed from Ireland, and it made me think about how valued our resource is abroad,”she explains.

With partner Kevin Moore Murphy, she set up Mungo Murphy’s Seaweed Company to produce a range of superfoods, face masks and seaweed baths – and she also runs food tours.

Sea spaghetti

As her mother had taught her, sea spaghetti works as a pasta, and as an oil-based ingredient in carrot cake, which they serve up in their office. Sea vegetables have a myriad of highly nutritional uses.

 

Sinéad began drying seaweeds, working with Limerick Institute of Technology, and she now has a number of international and national stockists for her products. She thrives, as she says, on working in “wet winds and hard hail”, and delights in “being able to wear wellies to work”.

Mother and daughter have further plans – already growing sea urchins, as part of an EU project, and working with samphire and sea cucumbers. “We also hope to use the water from abalone to grow several types of seaweed, such as sea lettuce and dillisk, as there’s a symbiotic relationship between the two in terms of nutrient exchange,”O’Brien explains – mirroring the symbiotic nature of the activity out at Connemara Abalone Teo. www.abalone.ie www.mungomurphyseaweed.com

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