Aug. 13—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, has provided nearly daily auctions of fish on the Portland Fish Pier. It was seen as a solid market-based alternative to the long-standing system that saw many fishermen turn their catch over to pier 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 in New York.
The exchange also was intended to help the struggling groundfishing industry as it dealt with worries about overfishing and heightened federal regulations on where and when fish could be caught. The exchange started out strong on that course, auctioning nearly 31 million pounds of fish annually in the early 1990s. But it performed inconsistently over the next decade and, starting 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 only 1.4 million pounds of fish auctioned. Some daily auctions were canceled because there simply wasn't enough cod, haddock, flounder and halibut to attract commercial buyers.
There are plenty of reasons for the decline, experts say, ranging from problems that have beset the industry as a whole, such as overfishing and resulting restrictions; a greater interest among fishermen to sell directly to dealers for an established price; and state regulations that bar fishermen from selling any lobster in Maine that they scoop up as bycatch, while those shellfish may be sold in Massachusetts. Maine prohibits groundfish boats 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 established, said there's a consensus in the industry and on the board that oversees the auction that things are going to have to change.
Valleau is a member of that board, which had to go to the city-run Portland Fish Pier in May to ask for $200,000 to help it deal with a cash shortfall resulting from a sharp drop in the number of fish auctioned at the exchange this spring. The exchange got the funding, but Fish Pier board members told the exchange board it had to look into different ways of operating to avoid continual losses.
Valleau said the board isn't opposed to new ways of doing things, even if it means changing its operating bylaws that say it has to operate for the benefit of the groundfishing industry. That means no shellfish or other types of seafood can be auctioned at the exchange under the current rules. The board 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 find ourselves where we are," he said.
He said the Maine rule barring sales of lobster that aren't caught in a trap is just one roadblock the exchange faces. Fishermen usually head to a spot in the Gulf of Maine that's roughly equidistant from Portland and Massachusetts's major fish ports of Gloucester and New Bedford. Larger fishing boats might scoop up $5,000 worth of lobster in nets intended to pull up groundfish, and that's a lot of money to toss overboard in order to put in at Portland instead.
That much money can provide a bigger payday for the boat's crew, Valleau said, and "if you want to keep your crew, that's what you do."
He also said that auctions are no longer as popular with fishermen as they once were. For a while, they provided bigger paydays, Valleau said, but that has declined over the years and fishermen now value consistency. He said many now make deals with buyers while they're out at sea so they can have a dependable return on a trip.
"The idea of an auction is no longer a dominant idea," he said.
Valleau said the changing role for the fish exchange comes at a time when the board is likely to turn over. Valleau, 86, plans to step down when his term ends in October, and he expects other board members will do the same as their terms expire. It's probably a good thing to have new board members as the exchange's role itself changes, he said.
That change will be accomplished in a couple of steps, said Bill Needleman, a member of the exchange board and waterfront coordinator for the city.
He said the board asked for an expression of interest and statements of qualifications from people in a first round that ends later this month. That's designed to give the board an idea of the background of parties interested in managing and transforming the exchange and for "teams to coalesce" to manage the exchange.
That will be followed by a request for proposals to find out how interested parties would run the exchange and seek to transform it for the future, Needleman said.
The board agrees there's a need for change, he said, and there's a desire to find out some of the ideas from people in the seafood industry about what that change might look like.
The exchange still has an opportunity to be an important factor in shaping the fishing industry in Maine, said Ben Martens, executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen's Association.
It once wasn't unusual for a fisherman to lobster in the spring and fall, groundfish in the summer and shrimp in the winter, he said, but with the shrimp season closed and groundfishing inconsistent at best, many, particularly those with small boats, have switched over to lobstering full time.
"It's become increasingly difficult to catch groundfish" Martens aid.
Those with larger boats often land their catch in Massachusetts, he said, which is fairly close to popular fishing grounds and often has better prices because of a larger market.
PRICE UNCERTAINTY AN ISSUE
The auction is considered less consistent, he said.
"Sometimes the auction is great and sometimes it's not," Martens said, and stability allows fishermen to plan their business better. "The price uncertainty is a major detriment."
During the pandemic, Martens' organization started 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 build a price floor under the auction because fishermen know they will always be able to find a buyer for their catch.
The association has donated 500,000 meals under the program, he said, and the hope is to expand it to reach more areas of the state. For the industry, it could mean that 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 environment for fishing, he said, it's just important to maintain infrastructure and support for the industry, he said.
"Whether it's an auction or not matters less to me," Martens said.