The Portland Fish Pier Authority approved a bailout of up to $353,000 for the Portland Fish Exchange, with $83,000 in the form of a loan that might be forgiven in the future.
The exchange, which is operating at about a $30,000 monthly shortfall, requested an estimated $270,000 to help it pay its bills through June 2021.
The pandemic has exacerbated challenges for the already struggling exchange, which is the anchor tenant of the city-owned fish pier and a critical piece of infrastructure for the fishing industry. It operates a refrigerated warehouse and fish auction where at least 90 percent of the groundfish landed in Maine is sold.
While landings have been falling at the exchange for decades, the pandemic has caused a severe dropoff this year. In August, only 130,000 pounds of fish were landed at the exchange, compared with 396,000 pounds a year ago.
Newly hired General Manager Nick Pappas told the authority Oct. 19 that by approving the funding request, “you would essentially be allowing me some breathing room to get my feet on the ground” and allow him to focus on charting a new direction.
At an Oct. 14 Fish Exchange board meeting, outgoing General Manager Bert Jongerden said there has been an uptick in landings as fish markets reopened and that September saw only a $14,000 shortfall. But Treasurer Ellen Sanborn said the bailout request took into account a typical slowdown expected in winter months.
Facing an acute cash-flow problem, the Fish Exchange also requested immediate reimbursement of the amount it allowed its tenants to defer in rent payments following the Fish Pier Authority’s decision to defer rent for its own tenants on the pier.
“We would like the $83,000 tomorrow morning if you can find it,” Fish Exchange President Tom Valleau said.
The authority opted to provide that as a loan, however, and plans to decide at its next meeting how or if it will collect payments on the deferred rents from its tenants, including the Fish Exchange. This may affect how the exchange handles repayment by its own tenants, and whether it can pay back the loan.
The exchange also received approximately $121,000 in pandemic relief through the Payroll Protection Program and plans to apply for additional CARES Act funding.
Related story: Seafood industry ponders viability of Portland Fish Exchange
Ben Martens, director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, supported the bailout request but suggested during public comment that there be strings attached to force the exchange board to address communication problems and inadequate representation of fishermen, which he said would be especially important as changes are made through a strategic planning process.
“If things aren’t better by next spring, my guess is the Portland Fish Exchange will be asking for additional resources to keep the operation going,” Martens said, “and I’m really hopeful that through use of these resources we can try and set ourselves up for a future that is more stable.”
Alan Tracy, president of Vessel Services, a business on the fish pier, called on the authority to place expectations on the Fish Exchange board to shift its focus from “finding stopgap measures and funding sources” to involving partners in developing solutions for the industry.
“We’re excited about new general manager leadership, but there really needs now to be some scrutiny on the board itself, the decisions that are being made, and whether, frankly, the right people are there to find those solutions,” Tracy said.
Pappas, who comes to the exchange from the hospitality industry – he ran the Front Room, Corner Room, and Grill Room restaurants in Portland – acknowledged in a telephone interview that his lack of familiarity with the fishing industry demands that he take a collaborative approach, and said he has already been meeting with boat captains, buyers, and sellers, and he believes “there is absolutely opportunity for growth, there is opportunity for not just surviving but for success, and that’s going to come in expanding what the exchange does.”
The Fish Pier Authority voted 4-1 to approve the $270,000 request, but in $90,000 increments with conditions that members said were intended to foster greater collaboration and transparency between the two boards. The exchange board is expected to meet bi-monthly with the Fish Pier Authority and report on any expense reductions, any proposed changes to the governance structure, and to make recommendations to address the viability of the exchange.
Valleau, who is also a member of the Fish Pier Authority, voted against the conditions.
Hank Soule, who was general manager of the Fish Exchange in the mid-2000s, offered encouragement in the public comment period. He said the exchange has gone through lean times before and that it is possible for it to get to a better place.
“That may involve a different mix of businesses than the exchange has traditionally been involved in,” Soule said. “It’s going to require a lot of work, but I think there are people in the state that are willing to put in that work to keep the exchange open because it’s a linchpin of Maine’s seafood industry.”
Freelance writer Jordan Bailey is a former Phoenix staff writer.