Sleeping with the Fishes
Will the Portland Fish Exchange get whacked?
Bert Jongerden is feeling pretty good. The manager of the Portland Fish Exchange is looking at 73,000 pounds of fresh cod, pollack, and redfish in the giant cold room and sixteen buyers wired on computers, cell phones, and coffee in the auction room next door. "This is the best day we've had in months," he says with a small smile.
But these days even a good day at the exchange is a bad day. The Portland Fish Exchange, once the economic center of the fishing industry in the state, is in serious trouble. Some people are predicting its imminent failure - even Jongerden only gives it a 75 percent chance of success - and with it the loss of Maine's most historic industry.
Jongerden oversees just two auctions a week, if he's lucky, compared to the five a week common just a couple of years ago. He has fifteen full-time employees, compared to the fifty who once worked there. This winter weekly landings were averaging around sixty thousand pounds. The 73,000-pound sale was the highest one-day auction in months. Even then the tubs of fish were lost amid the concrete expanse of the 19,000-square-foot cold room.
The exchange serves as the landside public market for Maine's fishing fleet, offloading, sorting, and auctioning freshly caught fish. The city of Portland built the facility on the Portland Pier in 1986 as the first wholesale fresh-fish display auction in the United States, ending the long stranglehold individual shoreside dealers had on fish prices.
Jongerden, who was operations manager in the mid-1990s, remembers when thirty million pounds of fish passed through the cavernous building every year. He needs twelve million pounds just to break even, collecting handling and sorting fees from both buyers and sellers. The exchange hasn't seen that much product in two years, and he doesn't have high hopes for 2008. Today the exchange has just twenty-two registered buyers - from the Legal Sea Foods restaurant chain to local wholesalers such as Browne Trading Company - bidding on twenty-seven different species, such as cod and dabs and even the occasional tub of scallops.
The exchange's fate is a symptom of a much larger problem. Buffeted by federal and state regulations and the dramatic decline of fish stocks in the Gulf of Maine and North Atlantic, many of the Maine-based fishing boats that once supplied the exchange with thousands of tons of fish have gone out of business. The fishing industry is going through a period of consolidation that is concentrating its economics - and its boats - around fish auctions in Gloucester and New Bedford in Massachusetts.
Jongerden says he's fighting a holding action, hoping to keep the exchange in business for the next two years while new federal regulations take effect that could bring more boats back to Portland. But the fish exchange has used up a surplus built in the days of plenty, and it is scrambling to find alternative sources of income. And increasingly it's facing the question of its relevance as the industry evolves. Beyond its nostalgia value, why should Mainers care about the fishing industry and the exchange that it supports? Is the decline of the fish exchange just another example of history turning a page?
Fishermen from Bristol, England, and Basque Spain reportedly discovered the enormous fish stocks of the Gulf of Maine about the same time Columbus was exploring Hispaniola. In the seventeenth century, fish from Maine helped the Puritans survive hard times in Massachusetts and made many of New England's earliest fortunes. Through much of the twentieth century fishing was a mainstay of the state's coastal communities.
"When I was growing up in Cundys Harbor, there were fifteen sixty-foot boats home-ported there," recalls fisherman Terry Alexander, 46. "Now there's one, and it's for sale."
The waters off New England once supported the most productive fin fishery in the world, where fishermen told stories of boats capsizing trying to haul in nets filled to bursting with cod, haddock, and flounder. But throughout the post-World War II era, pressure on the fish populations in the North Atlantic steadily intensified. Foreign fishing boats came from all over the world, and American boats kept growing to compete.
"At its peak there were 350 Maine boats out there hammering the resource," Jongerden recalls. All of that pressure led the fisheries to near-collapse. The cod, once the king of the North Atlantic, almost disappeared. A lawsuit by the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation forced the government to begin enforcing fish conservation provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Act. The resulting set of rules, known as Amendment 13, set dramatically lower catch quotas, limited days at sea, and regulated net mesh sizes. Vessel buyback programs and economic pressures forced out many fishermen.
"There was a need to reduce the fishing pressure," Jongerden admits. "The industry was overbuilt and overcapitalized."
The effect was almost immediate. "In 2006 we started seeing the numbers drop dramatically," Jongerden says. Last year a bare 8.3 million pounds of fish passed through the exchange. Jongerden estimates that the facility pumps at least thirty million dollars into the Portland economy annually, even in today's reduced circumstances. But he also estimates no more than seventy fishing boats are left in Maine.
Maybe seventy. "We had fifteen Portland-based draggers here until December," he says. "After Christmas they all disappeared south."
Draggers use large weighted nets to scour the seabed for groundfish such as haddock and flounder. In recent years many Maine draggers have moved south each winter to ports in Massachusetts, especially Gloucester. But what was once a seasonal, temporary shift is becoming permanent for some boat captains.
"Gloucester is a half-day closer to the fishing grounds than Portland is," explains Alexander, who recently moved his dragger to Gloucester. (He has another boat, a gill-netter, that he still operates out of Portland.) "Plus it's more expensive to do business in this state than it is down there. Massachusetts doesn't charge sales tax on diesel fuel, which Maine does, so fuel is cheaper there. Gear is cheaper there. The service facilities we need are there. There are plenty of places to tie up and plug in. It's a real business friendly environment down there. Gloucester wants us. Portland wants cruise ships."
And there's another reason, one Alexander says is the biggest. Draggers can sell the lobsters they land as bycatch in Massachusetts.
Maine does not allow any lobster to be taken except by "fixed gear," the famous lobster trap. Maine net fishermen who land lobsters are supposed to throw them back. Until recently, the rule wasn't a problem for captains who were making more than enough from the fish they landed.
Today, lobsters can make the difference between red and black ink on a fisherman's bottom line, Alexander explains. "Take fuel costs," he says. "Four or five years ago it cost us $400 to $450 a day in fuel on a trip. Now it's $1,400 a day. That's a lot of dead fish you have to land to make up the difference, and prices haven't gone up nearly enough to cover it. We can't tack on a fuel surcharge to cover our expenses."
Massachusetts and federal laws limit fishermen to a hundred lobsters a day up to a maximum of five hundred lobsters per trip, and Alexander says he always tries to get his quota. "My last trip, lobsters brought in $9,400, against a fuel bill of $8,400," he says. "If we had sold our catch in Portland, without the lobsters, we would have needed at least half again as much for our fish to make up the difference."
Last year the Portland City Council and fishermen pushed a bill in the legislature to allow lobster landings in Maine. The measure walked into a hurricane of opposition from the Maine Lobstermen's Association so powerful that the bill was voted down nearly unanimously.
Association president David Cousens, of Thomaston, gets almost apoplectic when he talks about allowing fishing boats to land lobsters. "If you ever allowed mobile gear to harvest lobsters, we'd be done in two years," he declares. "It's bullshit that fishermen are finding them just as bycatch. They actively go after lobsters, and they're doing the [lobster] industry a hell of a disservice because they're taking the brood stock, the big ones out in deep water that produce millions of eggs a year."
That complaint is particularly relevant these days as Maine lobstermen see sharp drops in the annual catch - down 23 percent last year alone. "The catch has been dropping steadily for the past six years," Cousens notes. "This past year my landings dropped 65 percent."
Cousens' disdain for groundfishermen is almost palpable. "They're going after lobsters because they screwed up the groundfishery," he insists, pointing to a long history of fishermen depleting one species, then moving on to another, less valuable species and depleting that one, too. "Now they want to put us in the same boat."
The 6,400 lobstermen in Maine are a political force so powerful that no one is willing to challenge them. Ask Ellen Sanborn, Portland's assistant finance director and a former member of the fish exchange board of directors, how much support the lobster bycatch proposal received from the city's sizeable and influential legislative delegation, and she answers by talking about how supportive the city council has been. (So does Jongerden, using almost exactly the same words.)
"There's been no help from Augusta on this," Sanborn adds. "Maine is the only state that does not allow lobster bycatch landings. From a volume perspective, the lobsters that fishing boats would land in Portland would be a blip on the radar screen. And they're still going to land those lobsters, just in Massachusetts instead of Maine."
Sanborn and others fear that the longer Maine fishermen stay in Massachusetts, the likelier they will stay. "You take your boat down there, your crew, then your bank account, and maybe you rent an apartment in Gloucester, establish contacts down there, and it just gets easier and easier to stay there permanently," Sanborn points out.
Technically, the fish exchange is managed by the Portland Fish Pier Authority and a board of directors. The money generated by the pier through leases and wharfage fees finances its maintenance and upkeep, with surpluses going to cover any deficit at the exchange. The exchange has needed that surplus for the past three years, Sanborn says. "If we get to the point where the pier authority no longer has the money, that bumps the situation to the city," Sanborn explains. "Then we have to ask ourselves if we want to continue to cover the losses."
Portland still has a small core of devoted boat owners who use the fish exchange, "but there are more changes coming," Sanborn says, "and I'm not overly optimistic myself" about the exchange's survival.
Jongerden says he is marketing the exchange's refrigerated space to other enterprises, such as seaweed processors and, ironically, lobster bait dealers. "The city has enough financial problems already," Jongerden adds. "I don't think it would ever give the fish exchange money directly."
"As a native Mainer, it's difficult to believe we might not have fishing boats in Maine anymore," Sanborn says. "And if our entire fishing industry is lobster, that's an awfully fragile position to be in."
"We've already seen the end of the groundfish industry in Maine," Captain Alexander declares. "I'd say it's over. I don't know what the state could do to bring it back, and they don't seem interested in doing it anyway. The day is coming when I'll have to move all my operations to Massachusetts. I don't want to, but economically I don't have a choice."
- By: Jeff Clark