SINCE Zeik Tuit was introduced to lobster fishing in Dunmanus Bay as a boy by his father, he was always going to be in it for the long haul.
“I bought a boat and I spent 25 years at sea,” says Zeik.
Donning sea-slicked oilskins, braving weather and waves to put food on this island nation’s plates in good and bad times, he has stuck with fishing through thick and thin.
Zeik’s trawler was among the flotilla of up to 50 that steamed to Cork city docks last month, on a protest rally to call for the reversal of quota cuts and a re-negotiation of EU Fisheries Policy in Ireland,
He is dad to three children. Damien is a talented musician in up and coming rock band The Murder Capital, Bethany is studying to be a Montessori teacher and bakes amazing cup cakes in her spare time, while Devlin has just finished 5th year.
Zeik established ZT Fish Company three years ago, which distributes fish throughout West Cork and is currently expanding into new locations.
He says: “I upgraded my boats over the years and I still have a team operating out of Union Hall. My headquarters is in Rosscarbery. I have a unit behind Ryans Spar shop where we process and fillet fish and get it ready for distribution.”
How did Zeik first get hooked on catching, hauling, gutting, filleting and selling fish?
“My dad, Terry, introduced me to fishing during my summer holidays when I was nine or ten,” he says.
“He got me used to hauling lobster pots and he got me used to the sea.
“When I became a deck hand on a trawler fishing out of Union Hall at 19 or 20, I had found my sea legs already!
“I worked my way up, working with the skipper and the crew on the boat.”
He was a small fish in a big pond.
“Starting off, the last man on board got the job of cooking and cleaning on top of the usual work, and in those days you started off on half a share, basically half the wages everyone else was getting. You would be damn glad to get a berth on a good boat and would be happy to serve your time this way."
He got good at cooking pretty fast.
“If the crew were hungry; they weren’t happy!” says Zeik. “It was a great initiation for me.”
He moved up the ranks, and met Margaret, from Wicklow, who became his wife. “She is a home-maker and also a director of the company. Margaret is a great support to me. Our son Devlin is part of our staff along with Janis Grislis and Conor Murphy, who make up a great team.”
“Margaret was working in Cork and we got married in 1992. In 1993, I bought my first boat called Alice Again in Castletownbere. She was 33 feet long. I hoped I could make a living out of fishing. It was a capable boat.”
It was a case of sink or swim.
“This was it,” says Zeik. “I was going for it.”
“I spent three years as a deck hand and I stuck with it, but it was time to take the plunge and go out on my own.
“Starting out as a young skipper was tough and I had lots of teething problems along the way, but I got a lot of help and support from the local Union Hall fishing community and survived against the odds.
“After three years I upgraded my boat and bought the Girl Fiona, a 48 footer from Kinsale. After a further two years , I bought my third boat, the Horizon in Scotland, that I had for nine years. My current boat, The Corona Gloria, I bought in France 14 years ago. She has been very good to me.”
Is the name a bit suspect given the current climate?
“I get slagged a bit about that!” laughs Zeik.
He never went under, but it’s a tough business with huge costs attached.
“Fishing is a tough business and the sea can be cruel. I have lost friends and family to the sea in tragic circumstances, most recently my nephew and godson Kodie Healy, who the sea took from us in October, 2019. Kodie was an up and coming top skipper, a really rare commodity nowadays. Not many young people are entering the industry any more as it’s so tough.
“Just a few weeks ago, Kodie’s older brother Patrick, another top skipper, lost his boat when a fire broke out on board. So much hard work had gone into that boat and she was maintained to a high standard but sometimes these things just happen.”
Thankfully, all the crew were rescued, which is always the most important thing.
“I was lucky,” says Zeik. “I was often out at sea in bad weather, lost gear on the bottom, engine failure, etc. But thankfully, I never had any really close shaves.”
Fishing takes guts, determination and resilience.
“My crew now six in number plus two skippers are as tough as nails,” says Zeik. “They are a dedicated bunch of lads. They get to know the territory very well. The crew share a great bond and are quick to react to any situation. The lads have a great mental attitude which makes them even tighter and tougher.”
Back on land, Zeik is thriving as he concentrates more on the marketing side of the fishing industry. Covid threw up a new interest in healthy eating and in cooking fish which is plentiful along our shores.
“During the first lockdown, there was an immediate effect,” says Zeik. “People weren’t able to eat out. They became more health conscious and had more time to cook. We saw a steady flow upwards.”
Others struggled to survive during Covid.
“Some of the restaurants I supply had to close during Covid,” says Zeik.
“But the sale of my fish at my stalls has flourished.”
When HE sets out his stall, people flock to it to buy the catch of the day: cod, hake, plaice, John Dory, haddock, lemon sole, monkfish and fresh Irish prawns. Zeik shops local.
“I buy from local suppliers regularly too. My skippers, Victor Piscako and Darron Shovlin, operate the boat on a trip on/trip off basis. Denis Cronin is the on-shore manger of the boat.”
Zeik sells the best of the batch.
“I am very fussy about the produce I sell. It must be super-fresh and it must be from local suppliers.
“Bringing fish to the table is a tough industry nowadays with all the restrictions,” adds Zeik.
“Brexit made it worse. Ireland has a 15% fish quota in our own waters, which is ridiculous. In Casteletownbere, more fish goes through foreign vessels than ours. It brings nothing to the table or to the local economy.”
The Spanish/French boats land their catch straight into the back of their own trucks, which head straight back to mainland europe, even bringing supplies for the boats with them.
“Not many young people are joining the industry,” adds Zeik.
Will his sea-legacy continue?
“My own sons don’t have much interest in going fishing and I can’t say I blame them,” says Zeik. “I don’t think I’d encourage them either!
“I do know big fishing families in West Cork carry on the fishing tradition and immerse themselves in that heritage and you have to respect that.”
He hopes that the Irish fishing industry can survive and thrive like he did. He hopes the men of the sea can carry on trawling the depths of the ocean.
“It would be a shame to see a fourth and fifth generational industry destroyed before their eyes,” says Zeik.
Is he a fan of eating fish?
“I throw on hake fillets on the barbeque some days,” says Zeik. “We have Monkfish skewers on a Sunday.”
He has help from his first mate.
“They are Margaret’s speciality!”
ZT Fish Company Ltd, in five locations every week: Tuesdays — Wilton Farmers Market 9am-2pm, Wednesdays — O Sullivans Centra Innishannon, 9am-2pm, Thursdays — Harte’s Spar, Fridays — Ryans Spar Forecourt Roscarbery, 9am-5pm. Saturday — Douglas Farmers Market, 9am-2pm.
Visit: ZT Fish Company on Facebook