The operators of the Portland Fish Exchange are hopeful about its future, although they face financial challenges that have led to a bailout from the Portland Fish Pier Authority.
The authority, a corporation formed by the city in 1989 to manage and market the fishing industry at the pier, has historically provided financial support to the fish exchange in times of need.
But when the authority granted a $240,000 bailout in June, members raised questions about how sustainable that practice continues to be. They asked the fish exchange to explore alternatives to current operations and management, ideally from a source in the waterfront community.
The fish exchange board will meet on July 21 to finalize a letter soliciting interest from local groups.
A pier authority meeting scheduled for Monday, July 11, was canceled due to a lack of members being able to attend. According to the meeting agenda, officials from the exchange were set to request an additional $80,000 to fund operations, and forgiveness of $30,000 in rent from the past 10 months and going forward until they further review the authority’s request to seek outside management.
With change undoubtedly on the horizon, the feeling at the fish exchange, however, is there’s still business to be done – which is how Mike Foster chooses to look at it.
Foster is part of the management changes that have taken place since June; he is the newly hired business manager of the fish exchange.
“We’re hiring, the doors are open, the lights are on, fish are coming through,” he said last week. “We are going to see this through.”
A perfect storm of challenges for the groundfish industry, in particular, left the fish exchange in a difficult period in the last few months, Foster said. But July brought an increase in fishing and growing consistency of product.
Support from federal CARES Act money has made a difference for fishermen, he said, reducing their fuel and ice costs, and as a result landings at the pier are increasing. Progress at the start of July – including a 27,000-pound haul at Monday’s auction – suggests financial recovery is possible.
The more consistent the catch becomes, the more buyers will come in, Foster said. At the same time, the exchange needs to ensure it can offer sufficient prices for high-quality products, which will entice more fishermen to land at Portland’s piers.
Maintaining that attraction is increasingly important to keep fishermen from skipping Portland’s piers and heading to Massachusetts, where lobster bycatch isn’t an obstacle.
Foster argued that larger fisheries can’t offer the same quality of product that Portland can, but sometimes lobster can be the difference. In Maine, fishermen can’t sell the lobsters that get caught up in their groundfish haul, but they can in Massachusetts.
Ben Martens, executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, said not being able to land lobster bycatch in Maine isn’t a new problem, but it’s a contributing factor to recent struggles.
“It’s something that causes some boats to land in New Hampshire or Massachusetts, instead of Maine, but it’s not the only factor (in the fish exchange’s struggles),” Martens said.
He added that the lull in groundfish landings in recent months could be due to better opportunities elsewhere. Some of the exchange’s top landers from 2010 to 2014, for example, spent last season lobstering because of how profitable it was.
But lobster prices began to dip toward the end of May, and remain down from last year’s record numbers, which could lead to a surge in the groundfish business.
Just as many in the fishing community have gone all-in on lobster when that market was at its height, Martens said lobstermen have been reaching out to try and diversify their options, adding groundfish or scallop permits to their businesses – with some harvesting groundfish for the first time in a decade.
Whether it’s on the fishermen’s side or on the marketing and branding side of things, Martens said a key is creating more demand for seafood.
“We aren’t very good about seafood. We don’t embrace seafood as food in our country,” he said.
During the pandemic, MCFA launched the Fishermen Feeding Mainers Program to boost business for fishermen during the pandemic and to embrace seafood as a staple in local communities. The nonprofit raised money to buy fish from local fishermen and donated it to food-insecure populations, providing as many as 400,000 meals over 20 months.
“Over and over again, we just heard how excited people were to be getting fish,” Martens said.
Discussion about adapting the fish exchange process is overdue, Martens said, and an opportunity for the business to think and talk collaboratively about its mission, goals, and how to build something better suited to the industry today rather than when it launched in 1986.
He said it’s important for the fish exchange to take a wider look at all the variety in seafood that’s available and make changes, perhaps moving away from its dependence on groundfish.
“I look at that facility and it’s been doing its job,” he said, “but it might be time to reexamine what its job needs to be.”
Reexamination has been taking place in small steps.
For example, the exchange has begun providing space to store bait in an effort to aid fishermen facing an ongoing bait shortage. It has also stored kelp, sold dogfish and monkfish, and is working towards bringing in tuna.
Even though these are only small changes, the door has been opened to a shift in practice that could help combat the exchange’s ongoing financial struggles.
Change and investment are necessary, Martens said, “(but) we’ve seen time and again that the city and the people of Portland really do value the fishing community.”
There’s work to be done, but there’s also money to be made, he added, which makes the fish exchange important for Portland’s future.
“It’s something to be protected and invested in for the next generation,” he said.
Commercial Street cold storage trail goes cold
Plans for a cold storage facility west of the International Marine Terminal on Commercial Street stirred up discussion in the fall of 2020, but since then there has been little activity and the date planned for groundbreaking has come and gone.
Backers of the plan, however, say there may be developments by the end of the summer.
A group of private investors and developers including Yarmouth-based Treadwell-Franklin Infrastructure had hoped to break ground last fall, but interim Executive Director Matthew Burns last week said the process has taken longer than expected.
The facility sought by waterfront interests and the Maine Port Authority at 40 West Commercial St. was approved by the city in 2020. But West End residents raised concerns about the height of the building and how it might impact traffic.
Finalizing lease agreements and increased construction costs have contributed to the lack of progress, Burns said.
Both he and George Campbell, a partner at Treadwell-Franklin, said they’re not ready to disclose anything significant about the progress of the project.
“For right now, I don’t have any new updates,” Burns said.
The port authority’s position is that a cold storage facility would have economic benefits for the city and the waterfront.
Amid shipping struggles elsewhere in the country, Portland is maintaining solid traffic, Burns said, specifically thanks to the growth of Eimskip, the Iceland-based shipping company that operates out of the IMT.
Eimskip Executive Vice President Andrew Haines said the company’s volume is reaching record numbers, and he “doesn’t see anything slowing up anytime soon.” He said vessels are packed full, and the challenge has been keeping up with the demand – which Eimskip has been able to do with the addition of another vessel this year.
Eimskip will only benefit from more space – refrigerated or not, Haines said. The company partnered with Treadwell-Franklin to support the cold storage project in 2020.
The 120,000-square-foot facility would provide approximately 20,000 pallet spaces and freezer storage, which would work in tandem with Eimskip’s specialization in temperature-controlled cargo, like seafood.
— Evan Edmonds