The future course of the Portland Fish Exchange is deeply uncertain, but will likely be set this fall.
The exchange, which was opened by the city in 1986, held almost daily fish auctions on the Portland Fish Pier. It was seen as a strong market-based alternative to the long-standing system that saw many fishermen handing over their catch to dock owners, who then trucked the fish out of state and tried to get a good price for them in markets elsewhere in New England or New York.
The exchange was also intended to help the struggling bottom fishing industry, as it addressed concerns about overfishing and strengthened federal regulations on where and when fish could be caught. The exchange started strong on this course, auctioning nearly 31 million pounds of fish a year in the early 1990s. But it operated inconsistently over the next decade and, from there about 15 years ago, saw a dramatic drop in the volume of fish landed by fishing boats and auctioned off to buyers.
Last year it hit rock bottom, with just 1.4 million pounds of fish sold at auction. Some daily auctions were canceled because there simply weren’t enough cod, haddock, plaice and halibut to attract trade buyers.
The reasons for the decline are many, experts say, ranging from issues that have plagued the industry as a whole, such as overfishing and resulting restrictions; greater interest from fishermen to sell directly to dealers at a fixed price; and state regulations that prohibit anglers from selling in Maine any lobsters they catch as bycatch, while those shellfish can be sold in Massachusetts. Maine prohibits groundfish vessels from selling lobster here, at least in part, to protect the much larger lobster industry.
Tom Valleau, who was the city’s director of transportation and waterfront when the exchange was created, said there was consensus in the industry and on the board that oversees the sale to auctions that things are going to have to change.
Valleau is a member of that council, which had to go to the Portland fishing pier in May to ask for $200,000 to help it deal with a cash crunch resulting from a sharp drop in the number of fish being brought to market. auction on the stock exchange this spring. . The exchange secured the funding, but Fish Pier board members told the exchange board it needed to look at different ways of operating to avoid continued losses.
Valleau said the council isn’t opposed to new ways of doing things, even if it means changing its operating regulations that say it must operate for the benefit of the bottom fishing industry. This means that no shellfish or other type of seafood can be auctioned on the stock exchange under the current rules. The council has changed its bylaws over the years, Valleau said, but the decline has been inexorable.
“It’s not for lack of knowledge and it’s not for lack of trying that we end up where we are,” he said.
He said Maine’s rule prohibiting sales of lobster that isn’t caught in a trap is just one hurdle the exchange faces. Anglers generally head to a location on the Gulf of Maine roughly equidistant from the main fishing ports of Portland and Massachusetts, Gloucester and New Bedford. The biggest fishing boats could scoop up $5,000 worth of lobster in nets meant to haul up groundfish, and that’s a lot of money to throw overboard to put in Portland instead.
That amount of money can provide a bigger paycheck for the boat’s crew, Valleau said, and “if you want to keep your crew, that’s what you do.”
He also said auctions are not as popular with anglers as they once were. For a time they provided bigger paychecks, Valleau said, but that’s diminished over the years and anglers now appreciate the consistency. He said many are now making deals with buyers while at sea so they can get reliable feedback on a voyage.
“The idea of an auction is no longer a mainstream idea,” he said.
CHANGES ON FOOT
Valleau said the fish exchange’s changing role comes at a time when the board is likely to change. Valleau, 86, plans to step down when his term ends in October, and he expects the other board members to do the same when their terms expire. It’s probably a good thing to have new members on the board because the role of the exchange itself is changing, he said.
This change will be accomplished in a few steps, said Bill Needleman, exchange board member and city waterfront coordinator.
He said the board had asked for expressions of interest and statements of credentials from people in a first round that would end later this month. This is designed to give the board an idea of the background of the parties interested in running and transforming the exchange and for the “merge teams” to run the exchange.
This will be followed by a request for proposals for how interested parties would handle the exchange and seek to transform it for the future, Needleman said.
The board agrees there is a need for change, he said, and he wants to hear some ideas from people in the seafood industry on what that change might look like.
The exchange still has the potential to be a big factor in shaping Maine’s fishing industry, said Ben Martens, executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association.
It was not unusual for a fisherman to catch lobster in the spring and fall, groundfish in the summer and shrimp in the winter, he said, but with the shrimp season closed and fishing background inconsistent at best, many, especially those with smaller boats, have switched to full-time lobstering.
“It’s gotten harder and harder to catch groundfish,” Martens helps.
Those with bigger boats often land their catch in Massachusetts, he said, which is fairly close to popular fishing grounds and often has better prices due to a bigger market.
PRICE UNCERTAINTY IS A PROBLEM
The auction is considered less consistent, he said.
“Sometimes the auction is great and sometimes it’s not,” Martens said, and the stability allows anglers to better plan their activities. “Price uncertainty is a major detriment.”
During the pandemic, Martens’ organization launched Fishermen Feeding Mainers, which buys seafood from fishermen that is cut, packaged and frozen by local processors. Then the fish is donated to food banks, schools and other community organizations to help feed the needy.
Martens said this helps set a price floor for the auction because fishermen know they can always find a buyer for their catch.
The association has donated 500,000 meals through the program, he said, and the hope is to expand it to reach more areas of the state. For the industry, that could mean more fishermen can continue to fish, he said, and stay in their communities.
“We can step in and do a little something to make sure people don’t lose money on trips,” Martens said.
In the difficult fishing environment, he said, it is simply important to maintain infrastructure and support the industry, he said.
“Whether it’s an auction or not is less important to me,” Martens said.
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