Portland Fish Exchange
A 27,000-pound haul at the July 11 Portland Fish Exchange auction was encouraging compared to recent months, but board members agreed there's room for improvement. (Portland Phoenix/Evan Edmonds)
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A change in operations is coming closer at the Portland Fish Exchange as officials try to keep the auction afloat.

The fish exchange board voted unanimously on July 21 to seek new outside management.

The board’s letter, a formal “Request for Qualifications and Expression of Interest,” is set to be reviewed by the city’s purchasing office before responses are sought. Once the document is issued, respondents will have four weeks to reply with details about their interests and qualifications.

Seeking assistance was suggested by the Portland Fish Pier Authority in June after consecutive slow months of business at the fish exchange compounded financial struggles from last winter and the coronavirus pandemic.

The authority provided the exchange a $240,000 bailout in June, and the exchange plans to ask for another $80,000 to help pay down a letter of credit, which currently sits at $167,000.

According to Bert Jongerden, former manager of the exchange, that figure represents funds taken out to keep the business running through the winter. The additional $80,000 would also cover an audit recommended by the city controller, which Jongerden said would cost about $13,000.

Despite the financial struggles, July was a step in the right direction when it comes to fish landings, although there remains room for improvement. The exchange has landed just under 170,000 pounds of groundfish this year to date, with 133,000 pounds in July alone.

Exchange President Rob Odlin noted the fleet has landed as much as 8 million pounds elsewhere, in ports like New Bedford or Boston.

“A lot of people in the public may not realize that groundfishing is still a very vital and viable business, and 8 million pounds are getting landed throughout New England,” Odlin said. “The potential for future (Portland) landings is huge.”

But another sign of the exchange’s problems is the recent reliance on the Fishermen Feeding Mainers Program, organized by the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, which has been buying groundfish to help bring business to the exchange. It then provides the fish to food-insecure communities.

Mary Hudson, director of programs at the Association, said at the meeting that she has bought about 70,000 pounds of groundfish from the fish exchange for the program in the last four or five weeks.

While that’s a crucial piece of the fish exchange’s business, it represents roughly half of the fish landed in the last month and suggests an overall lack of buyers, despite solid prices and a high-quality catch.

Interest in groundfish, the exchange staple, has also declined as more fishermen have been lured to fishing for lobster and scallops as those prices have soared.

With the exchange operating on the same model since its founding in the 1980s, officials are reaching the realization that reconsideration of the exchange’s practices is needed.

Meredith Mendelson of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, and a member of the Portland Fish Pier Authority, spoke in support of the letter to gauge interest in the operations and management shakeup.

Mendelson said she appreciates the board taking the step to look for outside management, and considering that a transition could take some time,  “I would encourage (the board) on the review process, to do what you can to expedite that.”

Waterfront business owner: Fish exchange floundering

Alan Tracy, president of Vessel Services in Portland, expressed concern about what he called a lack of awareness on the Portland Fish Exchange board amid the auction’s ongoing financial struggles and impending management changes.

“Their sense of urgency and their sense of the crisis that is … I’m not sure the board fully understands that in its totality,” Tracy said in an interview.

Tracy sent an email to the board prior to its meeting on July 21, asking directors to be transparent about his concerns and sharing that Vessel Services probably will submit a proposal to assume a management role at the exchange.

In the meeting, exchange Treasurer Tom Valleau highlighted the work of Mike Foster, newly appointed business manager of the exchange. He also expressed concern that Tracy might have to “take away” Foster, who is also the general manager at Vessel Services.

Tracy confirmed the board needs to have a plan in case Foster is needed back at Vessel Services.

The general manager position has been in flux at the fish exchange following the retirement of longtime manager Bert Jongerden at the end of 2020. Jongerden has been helping support the exchange lately and is working alongside Foster.

While Jongerden was supposed to be done helping out in early July, he said at the meeting that he’s finishing up projects that will now likely conclude by the end of August.

“I just think it’s important that the board be aware, with Bert’s temporary status, this is a tenuous situation,” Tracy said at the meeting. “We have a lot of needs at Vessel Services. (Foster) is very critical there. No one can be stretched too thin.”

— Evan Edmonds