fishing nets
Nets coiled on a fishing boat docked at the Portland Fish Pier on Sept. 16, 2022. The Portland Fish Exchange has battled financial struggles and staffing issues, leading to frustrations with waterfront companies. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)
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After what he termed “another mismanagement” by the Portland Fish Exchange Board of Directors, the president of a waterfront company has withdrawn from a request-for-proposals process which he said is now being “actively hindered” by the board. 

Sent out by the Exchange in August, the RFP was intended to gauge interest among companies on the waterfront about the prospect of managing operations of the Exchange. Vessel Services and Bristol Seafood, two private companies on the pier that work in tandem on the fishing industry, were the only two companies to respond. Both have now bowed out entirely, per the Exchange Board of Directors Meeting on Oct. 20, leaving the Fish Exchange with no current options.

Alan Tracy, president of Vessel Services, on the Portland Fish Pier in September 2022. Tracy has lost confidence in the Portland Fish Exchange Board of Directors, saying they have not responded to meeting requests or conducted the process to find outside managers quickly enough. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Founded in 1986, the Portland Fish Exchange is an open marketplace seafood auction overseen by a city review board. It has been a staple of Portland’s waterfront for decades, but the business saw a downturn in boats landing at the pier in the first half of this year, and operational costs during the pandemic have built up a sizable line of credit.

But Vessel Services, Inc., a company that provides ice, fuel and fishing supplies to the waterfront, has “lost patience” with the board, Tracy said, because its members failed to acknowledge meeting requests or move quickly enough despite warnings from Tracy that Vessel Services couldn’t wait indefinitely.

“I don’t want my frustration to overtake how important it [the Fish Exchange] is — that’s the real issue here,” Tracy said. “[It’s] incredibly important to the waterfront and the fishing ecosystem in Portland and in Maine. It is too important to leave in the hands of people who are not engaged and are not capable of sorting it out.”

The Portland Fish Pier Authority, the city entity that oversees the pier, requested that the board seek other management options after the Exchange had financial challenges throughout the year. 

Meredith Mendelson, president of the Pier Authority, said she remains concerned about the Exchange’s continued struggles to sustain operations.

The Authority approved an $80,000 payment to the Exchange in August, intended to pay down its line of credit, with the caveat that the Exchange Board expediently continue the RFP process. The Exchange’s struggles were underscored by the fact that the $80,000 primarily went to operating costs — only $5,000 was put towards the line of credit, Mendelson said.

Now that the RFP has stalled due to the loss of applicants, Waterfront Coordinator Bill Needelman suggested at the meeting that it’s time to gauge more interest from entities on the waterfront. There was much public interest in the project before the RFP, Needelman said.

Tracy said that Vessel Services still hopes to be involved in the future of the Fish Exchange, but only through an external process — one that doesn’t involve the current board.

Needelman, who is also Vice President of the Exchange Board, said in a subsequent interview that the board’s agreement to partake in the RFP process shows that its directors are open to changes.

The tension has been exacerbated by staffing issues. The board has three members with terms set to expire at the end of October, which includes the departure of longtime waterfront figure Tom Valleau, who is retiring. 

Mike Foster, general manager for Vessel Services, has been the interim general manager for the Exchange since June, but is resigning from that position. He was there to provide some stability in the Exchange after several months of flux in the position earlier this year.

Rob Odlin, the Fish Exchange Board’s president, questioned why the Fish Exchange couldn’t continue to be subsidized indefinitely, citing other industries like agriculture that are consistently subsidized to stay afloat.

Mendelson said in an email that the Pier Authority doesn’t make enough revenue to support the Fish Exchange indefinitely. If significant subsidies continue, it will impact the reserves of the Pier Authority, she said.

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