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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Hoping to find a solution to recent financial hardships, Portland Fish Exchange officials discussed a single-governance model that would govern both the fish auction and the pier and potentially establish a new executive director to lead the effort.

The two boards which oversee the Fish Exchange, a nonprofit, quasi-public fish auction and market, hope to tackle what some officials see as fundamental flaws in the oversight of the nearly 40-year-old waterfront institution.

The current model consists of two entities, the Fish Exchange Board, a public body of appointed members which oversees the auction, and the Fish Pier Authority, which is a city-established nonprofit real estate entity that is responsible for businesses on the pier. The city’s waterfront coordinator Bill Needelman advocates that a single entity overseeing the auction could solve key problems, saying that operating under the current model has led to issues with transparency, accountability and efficiency.

“People don’t understand what one board [or the other] does, and therefore it’s difficult to understand the overall structure and organization,” Needelman said at a Jan. 10 subcommittee meeting of the two boards.

A nine-member joint subcommittee of the Exchange Board and the FPA voted at that meeting to explore future changes, including the possibility of forming a single entity to oversee the auction and the pier. 

President of the Fish Exchange Board, Rob Odlin, expressed his worries about the future of the exchange at the meeting. Odlin wants to keep the current governance model with two entities, and warned of what could happen on Portland’s waterfront if the pier were bought out by private interests. 

He pointed to Newport, Rhode Island, which used to also have a large fishing fleet that has since been given over condo space and sailboats, he said.

“This harbor used to have a sizable fishing fleet, now we have condos, and lobstermen, and fishermen [all together],” Odlin said. “This is us, our future, it shouldn’t ever be threatened to be taken away.”

Meredith Mendelson, President of the FPA, is open to changing the model. 

“I don’t think it’s working, but I’m willing to consider that [current model] throughout the process,” Mendelson said. “I just want everybody to keep coming to this with an open mind about what the nature of the possibilities are.”

Operational changes for the Exchange have been in consideration for several months, following claims from FPA members that recent subsidies given to the Exchange to keep the doors open aren’t sustainable. The Exchange gauged interest from waterfront entities last fall about taking over operations, which resulted in the two interested businesses, Vessel Services and Bristol Seafood, ultimately withdrawing from consideration.

In addition to the single-governance option, the subcommittee unanimously agreed to other future objectives (with one abstention vote from a member not present for the vote). That would ensure the new entity would represent the variety of those who currently use the Exchange, and retain the current fish auction model.

The Fish Exchange Board meets next on Thursday, Jan. 19, with the governance subcommittee set to meet again the following Thursday, Jan. 26.

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