Scores of hard-plastic crates filled with ice-covered fresh fish sit on the floor of the Portland Fish Exchange, ready for inspection before the bounty is auctioned in lots to the highest bidders. The fish comes from eight boats that brought their catches of cod, haddock, monkfish, grey sole, and other groundfish here on this late September day.
Days like this, with more than 16,000 pounds of fish, have been too few and far between as of late at the Fish Exchange, a landmark on the Portland Fish Pier for 36 years. Hurt by a declining number of boats bringing their harvests to Portland and recurring financial losses, the exchange is bracing for operational changes to come, possibly by the end of the year.
At the request of the Portland Fish Pier Authority, the exchange board of directors solicited requests of interest from private firms interested in providing management services. The two interested companies, Vessel Services Inc. and Bristol Seafood, both located on the Fish Pier and well-known in the fishing industry, will soon submit proposals on how they would manage the exchange and what changes they might recommend. The board has also hired a temporary business manager—Mike Foster, the general manager of Vessel Services—to oversee the exchange in the interim.
Bill Needelman, Portland’s waterfront coordinator, said changes are needed because the exchange has been going through a long period of uncertainty with a revolving door of managers and dissatisfaction among many seafood sellers and buyers with certain facets of how it is run.
The biggest issue, however, is the exchange’s ongoing financial troubles. In the past year alone, the Fish Pier Authority has provided the exchange $300,000 to cover revenue shortfalls and capital repairs while also deferring rent payments through February. The continuing financial woes have served as a wake-up call that the time has come for a new strategic direction, said Needelman, who is vice president on the Fish Exchange board and also staffs the Fish Pier Authority.
“The Fish Exchange has had some rough financial times for a number of years, and the last two years has had unstable management through a succession of general managers,” he said. “This is a process to discover greater stability for the facility financially and from a staffing standpoint so services can continue and hopefully expand.”
Many members of the Fish Exchange board oppose changing the management regime, said Rob Odlin, a fisherman who serves as president of the Fish Exchange board. Instead, he said, the focus should be on providing incentives and looking at other ways to attract boats that might otherwise take their catches to Gloucester or New Bedford in Massachusetts.
Odlin, who owns two boats that currently fish for scallops, lobster, and squid, said most board members support having a “neutral party,” not an outside firm, run the exchange. The final decision comes down to the exchange board, but the board is backed into a corner because it receives funding from the Fish Pier Authority.
“We think it’s being managed correctly,” Odlin said. “The reason there have been no landings is because the boats have left Maine.”
When the exchange opened in 1986, it was said to be the first wholesale fresh fish display auction in the U.S. In its heyday in the early 1990s, the auction handled more than 30 million pounds of product a year. But as the fishing industry struggled under the weight of fewer fish and more regulations, the numbers went down—to 10 million pounds, 5 million, and finally under 1 million.
The situation became particularly dire this year when volumes dropped to unprecedented levels well below projections, bottoming out in May when only 5,000 pounds of fish were landed at the auction for the entire month.
Although landings picked up in July, August, and September, the uptick is attributed to rebates that fishermen receive for exchange fees, fuel, and ice, as well as Fishermen Feeding Mainers, a Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association program that buys fish at the exchange and ensures that fishermen have a market for their catch. The rebates and the Fishermen Feeding Mainers program are made possible from funds from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act economic stimulus bill, also known as the CARES Act.
But that money is scheduled to come to an end next spring, leaving the question: “What then?” Furthermore, the exchange is at a disadvantage because Maine law doesn’t let fishermen sell lobsters that are inadvertently caught in their nets; they have to toss the lobsters overboard or go to Massachusetts where they can be sold—which could amount to thousands of dollars per fishing trip.
Some board members suggest the city and/or the state should continue providing incentives to fishermen in the form of fuel, ice, and exchange fee rebates, giving them added reason to come to Portland. They also favor changing state law that prohibits lobsters caught in nets from being landed in Maine.
Meredith Mendelson, deputy commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources who serves as president of the Fish Pier Authority, said it’s important to explore all options, something she hopes a new management administration will bring to the table. Money is limited, she said, so it’s crucial that a sustainable business model be developed.
She agrees that bringing in an outside management team would be a big change.
“But I would also say it’d be very unfortunate—and a big change—if there were no place to land groundfish in Portland because of inadequate funding,” she said.
It’s not clear exactly what changes an outside entity might bring to the exchange; that will be part of the process of reviewing the proposals from Vessel Services and Bristol Seafood. But what is clear to Nick Alfiero, co-owner of Harbor Fish Markets in Portland and Scarborough, is that the auction is critical for fishermen, fish buyers, consumers, and the city’s reputation for quality seafood.
Alfiero, who also serves on the Portland Fish Exchange board, has been buying seafood here since day one of the auction.
“It allows me open access to fish that are landed,” he said inside the exchange. “It also allows me to inspect fish for quality. It’s also local, I don’t have to truck it. I can buy fish here in the morning and have it on display at our stores that same day.”