A board that oversees operation of a fish auction on Portland’s waterfront took the first tentative steps Thursday toward possibly ending the 35-year-old venture that was intended to bolster the city’s fishing industry.

The auction provides space on the Portland Fish Pier for fisherman to bring their haul and for seafood buyers to bid on the fresh catch. But it has struggled in recent years as fishermen are landing fewer fish. And they often take what they do catch to Massachusetts, which has robust seafood markets.

Jose Hernandez, left, and Nathan Dunford sort oysters by size at the Portland Fish Exchange in 2019. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The auction, which opened in 1986, was supposed to provide an alternative to doing business out of state for both fishermen and buyers. The goal has been to support and maintain Portland’s fishing fleet, but a dwindling catch has made that more difficult and the auction struggles to fill its four times weekly sales of seafood.

Rob Odlin, a fisherman who is president of the Portland Fish Exchange board, said fishermen are struggling and many are opting to take their catch to Massachusetts  to sell to take advantage of more lucrative lobster sales.

Maine law requires that all lobster sold in the state be caught in traps by licensed lobstermen. But fisherman intending to catch groundfish, such as cod, haddock and halibut, sometimes scoop up lobsters along with the fish. If they head to a port in Maine, they can’t sell the lobster.

But Massachusetts allows lobster bycatch, as it’s known, taken in federal waters more than 3 miles offshore to be sold in the state. That can add a lot of value to a day’s catch.


Odlin said the labor shortage also is hitting fishermen hard and that, in turn, has hurt the auction. He said he knows of five fishing boats in Portland – including one of his own – that don’t head out because there’s no crew available.

As a result, there aren’t many fishing boats that head back to Portland, and the fish auction, with their catch.

May was particularly slow, he said, and last month, the fish exchange’s management went to the board of the city-owned Portland Fish Pier for help, seeking $240,000 to cover expenses. The Fish Pier board approved the financing, but added a requirement that the fish exchange board consider alternatives for its 22,000-square-foot facility.

Thursday, the board started that process, and is working on a letter seeking to determine if there’s interest from an outside organization in coming in to run the auction or possibly do something else with the facility. The letter is currently under review by the city’s lawyers and its purchasing department, Odlin said, and will be back before the board in July for fine-tuning and a final decision on posting it.

Bill Needelman, the waterfront coordinator for Portland and a member of the fish exchange board, said the initial letter will simply seek to gauge interest from people in the seafood industry in possibly working with the board. He said those interested will be asked about their experience in and commitment to the Maine seafood industry as well as relevant management experience.

After the board reviews those responses, it will circulate another letter, asking those chosen what they would want to do with the exchange. And, based on the Fish Pier’s instructions to consider alternatives to an auction, that might lead to a new direction for the fish exchange.

Odlin said the fish exchange’s bylaws require it to work to help support the groundfishing industry in Portland and any proposal that deviates from that would likely have to be approved by the Portland City Council, which established the fish exchange in 1986.

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