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Updated: June 15, 2022

After financial losses, Portland Fish Exchange considers outsourcing management

Shot of gloved hands handling fish at the Portland Fish Exchange File Photo / Jim Neuger Newly caught fish are sorted at the Portland Fish Exchange in this file photo from 2020.

A longtime fixture of Portland’s working waterfront, the Portland Fish Exchange, is looking for an “alternative business model” that could include privatizing the quasi-public marine market.

The exchange’s board is scheduled Thursday to consider a proposed request–for-interest seeking “options for delivery of services and management” at the 22,000-square-foot facility on the Portland Fish Pier, according to a city memo.

Public, private and nonprofit organizations would all be invited to respond to the RFI, and the board might then solicit proposals for managing the exchange. Outsourcing is merely an option and not a sure thing, however.

“The goal of the Request for Interest process is to discover whether there are sustainable alternatives to the quasi-municipal model,” minutes from a June 1 board meeting read. “In order to ensure continuity of services to the groundfish fleet, the Portland Fish Exchange commits to seek in good faith a more sustainable business model than the current system has provided for many years.”

The Fish Exchange, which opened in 1986, houses almost-daily auctions of fresh seafood, and acts as a hub for the buying and selling of Maine groundfish. 

aerial of wharf and buildings and cars
File photo
The Portland Fish Exchange is shown in the center of this aerial view of the Portland Fish Pier, looking south.

But in recent years, the marketplace has struggled financially as changes in climate, regulations and the economy have resulted in fewer boats landing — carrying smaller catches.

For example, the Fish Exchange had landings of 324,000 pounds of groundfish from January to September last year, but had budgeted to land 665,000 pounds by that time.

The city has frequently provided funding to help the exchange weather the financial shortfalls. On May 31, President Rob Odlin and General Manager Steven Schultz met with the board of the Portland Fish Pier Authority, requesting $240,000 to cover three months of operations expenses.

The board ultimately approved the request, but not before one of the directors, Meredith Mendelson of the state Department of Marine Resources, added a stipulation that the Fish Exchange begin exploring other management options.

“The exchange board is coming to the authority asking for money and the request is the one tool we have to encourage an outcome,” she said. “I just feel that it’s necessary the exchange board take action as soon as possible so that collectively, the exchange and the authority are not continuing to waste time and money.”

Several members of the fishing community spoke in support of the measure’s overall goal, but said it would take time to come up with a new approach.

Mendelson acknowledged that six to nine months might be required in order to develop an alternative model for running the exchange. The RFI process, she said, is simply a way to get the process going.

The board of the Fish Pier Authority voted 4-1 in favor of the measure, with Odlin dissenting. The board of the exchange took up the request the next morning, and will reconvene Thursday to see an initial draft of the RFI.

The meeting is scheduled for 3 p.m. and more information can be found here.

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