Article by Francess McDonnell, published by The Irish Times on Monday 20th April 2020

China market re-opens for Kilkeel seafood company

Transport now the issue as Northern Ireland supplier looks to offset closures in Europe

One of Northern Ireland’s largest seafood companies has shipped its first orders to China since the coronavirus pandemic began but has warned exports could suffer due to the impact of Covid-19 on freight routes.

Rooney Fish has started exporting whole brown crab again to customers in what was a key market for the Kilkeel, Co Down business. Managing director Andrew Rooney said the family firm usually sells about 800 tonnes of crab to China every year and also exports its own brand of Pacific oysters, Millbray, which are grown in Carlingford Lough, to customers throughout the region.

But all that stopped in December as authorities in Beijing battled with the widening coronavirus pandemic. Now business in China is beginning to re-open but Mr Rooney has run into a new problem – getting product to market.

“Because flight carriers have dropped off and there are only a few flying to China, we are trying hard to get space on flights. We’re also trying to send containers of our product to overseas markets but now there is also a big problem getting ships that are sailing,” Mr Rooney said.

“Hopefully things will change soon because it is having a major effect on our cash flow. I could be selling more into the Chinese market but I’m being hampered in doing so by the transport issues,” he said.

Before the crisis Rooney’s was exporting to 15 countries from the Far East to South America, accounting for nearly 99 per cent of sales at the company, which employs 67 people.

But the pandemic has had a devastating impact on its business. From supplying Michelin-star restaurants, five-star hotels and high-end supermarket chains, Mr Rooney was moved to worrying about where the next orders will come from.

“We built a global reputation for our seafood over 45 years but overnight that’s all changed. We’ve practically no one to sell to now because our key markets, like Italy and France, are closed because of the coronavirus.

“Our Italy office was the first to close in Europe and that was my bread and butter market. Who knows when it will re-open but I have 67 staff to look after, I’ve fishermen to pay and all my bills and we just don’t know when it is going to get back to normal again,” Mr Rooney said.