‘As a national policy, we need to start looking at diversity in what we’re growing and not putting all of our eggs in one basket,” says Sinead O’Brien, who operates Mungo Murphy Seaweed Company with her mother, Cindy, in coastal Connemara.

“Plans need to be made to allow for easier uptake in the kind of farming we’re doing. It’s discouraging people to embark on a project when they see how long it takes for licensing and planning permission.”

Irish Country Living is speaking with Sinead about the current status of aquaculture, an industry which produces approximately 40,000 tonnes of both fin and shellfish and directly employs around 1,800 people in rural and coastal areas of Ireland.

In 2021, its total output was worth approximately €175 million. However, while a significant coastal employer, the sector has faced serious challenges which have hampered its ability to prosper.

Mungo Murphy

Sinead and Cindy operate Mungo Murphy – so named because when Cindy, a marine biologist, first started working in Irish aquaculture (in 2007), Sinead suggested a male alter-ego would work better in a male-dominated industry

“Now things have changed a bit, but the alter ego still comes in handy,” Sinead says, laughing.

They grow seaweed and abalone (a gastropod mollusc; considered a delicacy in many countries) in a sustainable on-shore system. Cindy has always focused on the abalone, while Sinead introduced seaweed and agri-tourism to the business.

In recent years, Cindy and Sinead have not been able to make enough product to sell commercially for several reasons, but mainly due to roadblocks in their on-site abalone seed (egg) production.

“It all started with the obstacle we faced in renewing our aquaculture license,” Sinead explains. “We are an existing farm, so it was only a renewal, but it still took about five years. It was frustrating on many levels, but mainly because licenses only last ten years to begin with.”

Sinead says they started the application in 2016 – a full year in advance – but still faced extreme delays.

“Suddenly, the rug is pulled from underneath you – you can’t apply for funding or grants without the license,” she says. “Once we got it, we could apply for planning permission – which took another two years to be granted. If we were an animal farm, the same planning permission restrictions wouldn’t apply. We had been told to apply for commercial application, even though we are a farm. That was a big bone of contention.

“We’re the only abalone farm in Ireland now, and we’re facing a seed [for abalone brood stock] conundrum. We produce our own, but we also used to get seed from another Irish hatchery [no longer in existence]. We currently only have four settlement tanks, so that limits our ability to expand.”

In the meantime, Sinead and Cindy offer farm tours and take part in different aquaculture research projects. They hope that, very soon, they can start selling their product commercially. Abalone are a lucrative crop and can fetch up to €140/kg. Globally, native populations have been overfished, nearly to extinction, and 95% of abalone on sale is now farmed.

Re-circulated system

Cindy and Sinead farm in a land-based re-circulated system, which means the abalone and seaweed never enter coastal waters. Instead, sea water is filtered and pumped into large on-shore housing tanks. It re-circulates several times before going back out to sea. This is one of the most sustainable ways to practise aquaculture as the natural coastline is left untouched.

While Cindy and Sinead love the work they do, they are often frustrated by the lack of support and organisation around aquaculture in general.

“When it comes to investment in aquaculture, a lot of funding is diverted into technology, like apps and monitors, which largely benefit salmon farms – that’s quite specific and not going to help grow the larger aquaculture industry,” Sinead says. “Farmers need investment in their farms; in seed production and equipment.”

“We also don’t have any aquaculture schools or formal education,” she adds. “As a result, we are getting a lot of students here from France and Spain on work experience (where they have invested in education), but no students from Ireland. Who is going to step in?”

National Strategic Plan

Sinead and Cindy are not alone in their frustrations, but could these issues soon be a thing of the past?

In October 2023, the new National Strategic Plan for Sustainable Aquaculture Development (NSPSA) was launched by Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Charlie McConalogue. It aims to, “improve resilience to external threats as well as to capitalise on the increasing demand for lower carbon, sustainable and healthy seafood production.”

Irish Farmers Association

Teresa Morrissey is aquaculture executive at the Irish Farmers Association (IFA). She says new aquaculture license applications (which are sent into the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine) are currently dealt with, “within a reasonable time frame.”

“This is helpful in terms of business planning,” she tells Irish Country Living. Last year, the IFA published an online guide for those going through the process (ifa.ie/aquaculture-license-application-guidelines/).

Historic licensing delays, like those experienced by Sinead and Cindy, stem from a European Court of Justice ruling under the Birds & Habitats Directive.

“[This] required all aquaculture licenses to be appropriately assessed prior to a determination to ensure compliance,” she says. “We are now almost at the end of the process in dealing with the aquaculture licensing backlog [with 30 remaining finfish licensing applications in line to be determined by the end of 2024]. The ‘Review of the Aquaculture Licensing Process’ was carried out in 2017 with 30 recommendations for a more streamlined, efficient aquaculture licensing system – DAFM are currently working on implementing these recommendations and IFA Aquaculture continues to seek improvements for the aquaculture licensing system.”

Teresa Morrissey is aquaculture executive at the IFA.


Teresa says it is vitally important that a single piece of legislation is brought forward to implement and underpin appropriate aquaculture policy, which should bring together all existing legislation.

“Reducing the administrative burden and having an efficient, transparent aquaculture licensing system is of benefit to regulators, the industry and aquaculture stakeholders alike,” she states.

“Like all Irish food producers in recent times, Irish aquaculture operators and their businesses have had to deal with spiraling input costs and market disruption, this continues to be a challenge for the sector in 2024.”

Overall, though, Teresa believes there is a bright future ahead.

“BIM recently published a report on the Carbon footprint report of the Irish Seafood Sector in February 2023. This report provides a carbon baseline for the Irish seafood sector and is an excellent starting point on the journey to achieving Net Zero by 2050. The report concluded that the Irish aquaculture sector has both an exceptionally low carbon footprint and [its products] can be considered a ‘low carbon food’.”

It remains to be seen how and when this will benefit current operators.

For more information, mungomurphyseaweed.com

In brief

• Aquaculture is the controlled cultivation of sea products. In Ireland, aquaculture output includes mussels, oysters, abalone, seaweed and finfish (like salmon).

• As an industry, aquaculture holds great potential to help reach climate goals while producing nutritious food. However, certain types of aquaculture, like ocean-based finfish farming, are often considered less environmentally-friendly than others.

• Irish aquaculture operators have faced challenges in licensing and obtaining planning permission. These delays have stunted the potential growth of the industry.

• The Government has launched a new initiative to help alleviate these challenges and IFA Aquaculture feel hopeful for the future of Irish aquaculture.

Sharing the story of Irish shellfish

Sarah Browne owns and operates Oysome. \ Anita Murphy

When Sarah Browne moved to Co Donegal from her native Kerry to attend college, she had no idea how significantly Irish aquaculture would affect her future. In 2021, she was chosen as a Taste the Atlantic ambassador.

Taste the Atlantic – A Seafood Journey is a collaborative initiative between Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM) and Fáilte Ireland to promote seafood producers and their products along a trail which extends from Malin Head in Co Donegal to Kinsale, Co Cork.

“That relationship with food and the connections with our environment really interested me, so I applied for the Taste the Atlantic programme,” she explains. “It was a big opportunity for me. I visited as many aquaculture farms as I could, to learn as much as I could.”

Sarah admits that until she joined the programme, she had never tasted an oyster. When she did, she didn’t just fall in love with the flavour – she was equally drawn to the hard-working people within the industry.

“The traditions and passion for their craft really resonated with me,” she says.

After the Taste the Atlantic programme ended, Sarah still felt the need to share the story of Irish aquaculture and, specifically, Irish oysters. This led her to develop her business, Oysome, in 2023.

“With Oysome, I do culinary events – workshops, demos, pop-ups, anything to bring oysters across Ireland and show people how beautiful and amazing they can be, how diverse they are in flavour between different bays and how to cook with them easily at home. I teach people how to shuck, because oyster shucking skills are seriously lacking. I also provide oysters for catering.”

Sarah is soon launching a range of seasonal oyster accompaniments using local Irish ingredients. While she feels that aquaculture is still largely misunderstood by most consumers, she also knows that the future is bright.

”Anyone I have come across [in aquaculture] has been an absolute pleasure to deal with and has done whatever they could to offer me support. I think that kind of an attitude takes people really far in life. It gives me great faith in Irish aquaculture’s future.”


Read more

Salmon of knowledge: are fish farms to blame for lower wild salmon numbers?

Farming a naturally occurring process: Blackshell Farm rope grown mussels