Crates of freshly caught fish await buyers in the refrigerated warehouse of the Portland Fish Exchange on Sept. 30. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)
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The Portland Fish Pier Authority is embarking on a strategic planning process that could determine the future of its underused waterfront space.

Built to accommodate large trawling vessels and massive landings, the Portland Fish Exchange faces challenges from the decline of landings, fewer boats in the state’s groundfishing fleet, the coming retirement of its longtime manager, and the sudden impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Business at the exchange peaked in the early 1980s when more than 300 vessels landed nearly 80 million pounds of groundfish. By 1999 only 15 million pounds were landed by 160 boats. The manager, Bert Jongerden, said as of 2019 only about 40 vessels were selling their catches at the exchange. 

A dockside view of the Portland Fish Exchange. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

But as one of the few piers capable of berthing large vessels, where boats can fill up with ice and fuel at Vessel Services, make repairs at the Maine International Trade Center, and mend gear at the net yard, it is still where 90 percent of the state’s groundfish is sold.

And Jongerden has been working to diversify the exchange’s business model beyond groundfish. It now offers pumping services for herring and mackerel, storage space for lobster bait, and recently rented space to an aquaculture company to grade and bag oysters. 

He said his pet project is to open an incubator space for marine-related businesses that need 1,000 square feet, an office, a loading dock, and a cooler to get started.

“The Portland Fish Pier is an important piece of infrastructure for the entire state, and provides a unique set of services for the remaining groundfish vessels in Maine,” said Meredith Mendelson, deputy commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources and member of the Fish Pier Authority board. “It also has evolved over time to provide critical infrastructure for other fisheries, such as herring, and has potential to continue to evolve.”

In June and July, Portland Waterfront Coordinator Bill Needelman conducted interviews with 20 members of the seafood industry including business owners, representatives of industry groups, harvesters, and investors. He provided anonymized summaries of the interviews and offered recommendations in a July 22 memo to the Fish Pier Authority board. 

City Councilor Nick Mavodones, chairman of the authority, said the board will likely take public comment on Needelman’s findings and the strategic planning process at its Oct. 12 meeting. 

Suggestions range from reevaluating the confusing governance structure (the quasi-public nonprofit Fish Exchange is governed by a board of directors and the fish pier is governed by the Fish Pier Authority), bringing freezing and more processing services to the pier, including more species in the auction, and redesigning it to handle smaller lots. Some have suggested opening a public boat-to-table-style market, similar to Pike Place in Seattle. 

Josh Merrit unloads fish from the trawler Paulo Marc at the Portland Fish Exchange on Sept. 30. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Needelman’s recommendations include adding berthing docks for lobster and other smaller boat fisheries including tuna; incubator space for start-up businesses; and freezing, processing, packaging, and marketing services; improving sanitation at the net yard; broadening the exchange’s auction to include aquaculture products and more species, and allowing smaller buyers and lot sizes. 

However, almost any proposed change risks opposition from any of the many interests on the waterfront. 

Jongerden said lobster fishermen have been looking to the fish pier to build more berthing space as existing berths are lost or threatened. But investing public money into services that would compete with private businesses that lease berths on the waterfront could be problematic.

Still, he envisions the net yard being used by lobstermen for unloading traps. “It’s an open area for anybody,” Jongerden said.  

Fishermen want better prices

Ben Martens, executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association and one of the stakeholders interviewed by Needelman, said groundfish seem to be making a comeback, with fishermen reporting seeing more of them.

While catch limits will always be an obstacle, he said the biggest problem at the exchange is low prices. If prices could be brought up, he said, more boats would be able to sell their catches in Portland.  

Mike Randall of Portland mends a seine at the net yard on the Portland Fish Pier Sept. 10. (Portland Phoenix/Jordan Bailey)

“We’re going to lose the groundfish fishery right now and it’s not because there aren’t fish in the ocean; it’s because our fishermen can’t get paid for them at the dock,” Martens said. “I feel like that’s where we need to be spending time innovating and building opportunities around the Portland Fish Pier.”

He estimated that as much as 40 percent of the fish landed at the exchange is being sold after the auction, an indication that the process is not working as well as it should.  

Bringing in more buyers would be one way to increase prices; Martens suggested inviting smaller businesses into the auction and marketing it more aggressively. There are currently 21 buyers at the auction, according to Jongerden. 

One barrier for smaller buyers could be a $15,000 letter of credit required to join. But Jongerden said this is necessary for the exchange’s guarantee to fishermen that they will be paid for their sales the next day, and because the Fish Exchange Board wanted to ensure that robust companies with credit in the community were buying from the exchange.

One of Needelman’s recommendations to the Fish Pier Authority, however, is to reduce fees and explore alternative payment guarantees at the exchange. 

Restaurants a hard sell

Martens pitched an idea to the Fish Exchange Board to hold an auction with smaller lots one day a week to allow restaurants to buy directly from harvesters.

But he said buyers on the board argued that would take away some of their business. Some local restaurants, meanwhile, prefer buying from wholesalers. 

Fresh-caught fish ride up a conveyor for sorting at the Portland Fish Exchange Sept. 30. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Tony Quatrucci, the buyer for Dimillo’s, said by email that he does not purchase fish at the exchange, but is happy buying from local vendors who do. 

Andrew Taylor, chef-owner at Big Tree Hospitality, which includes Hugo’s, Eventide, The Honey Paw, Eventide Fenway, and Big Tree Foods, said he and his partners considered buying fish directly through the exchange but decided that the benefits do not outweigh the disadvantages. The obstacles for them include high fees, the inability to get small amounts of fish at short notice, lack of delivery service, and the limited species available. 

“The auction method of selling fish is not really compatible with chefs’ and small restaurant’s needs,” Taylor said in an email. “We need to be able to pick up a phone at any time and pick up the five extra pounds that we might need for service later tonight.” 

Taylor said the wholesalers they work with source the variety of fish they need and deliver it to their door. 

“Portland has some wonderful seafood wholesalers (Upstream Trucking, Harbor, Browne Trading, Ready Seafood, to name a few),” he said. “I don’t think the middleman needs to be viewed as a bad thing if they are providing great service. There is some sensitivity when you start going to their sources and trying to cut them out.” 

Martens acknowledged that the issues around pricing are complicated.

“I don’t want to just say that somebody in the middle of this is being greedy because I don’t think that’s true,” he said. “But I think there’s something a little bit broken right now in that the fishermen are coming last on the list to get the support that they need.” 

Vessel Services provides ice and fuel for fishing boats on the Portland Fish Pier. (Portland Phoenix/Jordan Bailey)

He attributes this to lack of representation: there are no harvesters on the Portland Fish Pier Authority board.

Alan Tracy, president of Vessel Services, submitted a letter to the authority Aug. 3 about the lack of representation for ground fishermen. He requested that representatives of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association and Vessel Services be appointed.

“It is essential that the PFE Board be connected and in touch with the fishing community and the ongoing issues that impact them,” Tracy wrote. “There are legitimate questions about whether that connection currently exists.”

Tourism, boat-to-table markets 

Hugh Cowperthwaite, senior program director of fisheries and aquaculture at community development financial institution Coastal Enterprises Inc., is the co-author of “The Maine Seafood Study,” a 2015 report aimed at identifying ways to integrate seafood into a Maine food distribution system along with local agricultural products.

He said increasing local demand for Maine seafood could raise prices of fish for fishermen and might entice more boats back to the Portland Fish Exchange. He also said groundfishermen had many factors stacked against them in Maine, including fuel taxes, insurance requirements, and a prohibition on landing lobsters not caught in traps (lobsters are sometimes caught as bycatch in nets, and some harvesters have moved to ports that accept them.) 

Fish are sorted by hand at the Portland Fish Exchange on Sept. 30. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Cowperthwaite said expanding the exchange to include more species and types of products could entice more buyers to join. 

“It just makes sense to adjust the use of the exchange as a reflection of where Maine fisheries and aquaculture industry is today,” he said.

Martens also sees opportunity in linking the working waterfront to the local food movement and to tourism. He suggested that the Portland Fish Pier could be opened to the public to bring consumers and tourists into the fisheries world.

“People are coming to Maine for a certain experience,” he said. “You could really create that experience (there) while also investing in the future of the working waterfront and protecting the working waterfront from development at the same time.” 

While interest in buying local has gained momentum, Martens said people often do not know how when it comes to seafood. He supports the idea of a boat-to-table market at the pier, although he said there would be opposition from businesses with fish markets on the waterfront. 

Mendelson, of the Fish Pier Authority, said while the pier could provide a window to the industry and could help connect the general public to the source of their seafood, allowing the public to walk around might not be compatible with commercial vessels using the pier. 

“I am open-minded about new opportunities, but I don’t want to see the existing uses suffer as a result,” she said. 

Although she has always thought a public market was an exciting idea, she said, “if this were a simple, profitable opportunity, someone would have done it already.” 

Jongerden said one reason it hasn’t happened is that harvesters don’t have the time to chase sales. 

“After you’ve spent 12 hours fishing, to start selling your fish, and then trying to get the money for it and driving the fish around town, that never really worked well for them to do that,” he said. “They spend their time harvesting fish, not selling fish.”  

Tuna fishermen Andrew Lebel pulls up the hose after Capt. Pete Speeches fuels up his fishing vessel Erin & Sarah Sept. 10 at Vessel Services on the Portland Fish Pier. (Portland Phoenix/Jordan Bailey)

But one fisherman at the pier on Sept. 10 said he would “absolutely” sell at a fish market at the pier. 

“That would be ideal; I would prefer that,” said tuna fisherman Andrew Lebel while filling the fishing vessel Erin & Sarah with fuel and ice. “We sell a lot of our fish both internationally and domestically, but I’m all for if we could support a domestic market here locally.” 

“Our market has been affected greatly by the whole COVID thing,” Lebel continued. “It’s forced a lot of people in our industry to find other avenues to offload our products. That’s one of the things that we have been doing is supporting these local fish buyers that are working with local restaurants.”

Surprising demand

Upstream Trucking is one of the buyers at the Fish Exchange. While most buyers sell locally, nationally, and internationally, Upstream sells exclusively to Portland restaurants. 

General Manager George Parr said from his facility on Maine Wharf Sept. 10 that while other buyers stopped buying tuna due to lack of demand when restaurants closed because of the pandemic, his business has been booming. He buys directly from Lebel and two other tuna harvesters and said he has moved 80 bluefin tuna since June 1, just in Portland. 

“It’s nuts,” he said. “I’m surprised we’re doing so well. I was crying March 15; I thought I was all done. It took about a month and a half to come together and the whole thing started evolving.”

However, Parr said he is not sure the demand will last into the winter when restaurants can no longer serve outdoors.

While he champions hyper-local distribution of Maine-caught fish, he said a boat-to-table market would probably not work at the Fish Pier because consumers want to buy their fish in filet form, a service Upstream provides.  

General Manager Bert Jongerden, right, checks on boxed fish bought on The Portland Fish Exchange auction and headed to New York Sept. 10. (Portland Phoenix/Jordan Bailey)

“That’s what Harbor (Fish Market) does, that’s what P.J. Merrill (Seafood) does,” he said of other buyers at the exchange. “We buy the whole fish and filet it out because restaurants don’t want to buy whole codfish or a whole haddock.” 

Nick Branchina, director of fisheries and aquaculture at CEI, has bought and sold fish on the Portland waterfront for over ten years. He said “it all goes back to the fact Americans need to learn how to handle fish.” 

The potential revival of the National Seafood Council, a short-lived federal seafood marketing board, could help promote fish and educate people about preparing fish at home, Branchina said. 

He is heading the Maine Seafood Marketing Initiative, a pilot program to assist Maine fishermen in brokering new purchasing opportunities and finding new domestic markets for Maine seafood that could help harvesters get higher prices for their catches and remain in business. 

Branchina said his foremost concern about the future of the fish pier is that it be maintained for commercial use. 

“It’s an awful lot of land and unfortunately in a city that is being grossly gentrified and is horribly angling itself to hospitality and/or luxury accommodations on the waterfront,” he said. “That’s the biggest single issue.” 

The Fish Pier Authority had been planning to issue a request for proposals for a consultant to lead the strategic planning process, but shifted to a staff-led process because of the pandemic. At a special meeting Sept. 16, members approved a one-time budget request from the city to take on half of Bill Needelman’s salary for the 2021 fiscal year because of city shortfalls due to the pandemic and his extensive work for the fish pier. 

Martens said that while Needelman’s work has been a valuable first step, he hopes the Fish Pier Authority will still consider going forward with hiring a consultant. 

“You would need to have somebody with a lot of vision and time and some money behind them to come in and say this is what we need to do on the Portland Fish Pier and we’re going to muscle it into place,” he said, “because there are so many other interests that always revolve around that space.”  

While he remains at the Fish Exchange, Jongerden is continuing to work toward his inclusive vision for the pier and finding ways to bring more of the seafood industry into the fold. 

“I’d like to see more of a cooperative model going on down here where you can have ground fishermen, lobstermen, aquaculture – an inclusive area,” he said. “Just a multi-purpose facility that can be utilized by different groups of people that harvest from the ocean.” 

Freelance writer Jordan Bailey is a former Phoenix staff writer.