Maine’s fishing industry is fucked


The Portland Fish Exchange: on course to run out of cash next year. (photo/Chris Busby)
The Portland Fish Exchange: on course to run out of cash next year. (photo/Chris Busby)



Maine’s fishing industry is fucked 
Politics and policy force groundfishing fleet out of state

By Chris Busby

It’s no longer appropriate to mince words when describing the state of Maine’s groundfishing industry. Simply put, it’s fucked.

A “perfect storm” of federal regulations and state policies and politics have combined to decimate this traditional Maine trade and stymie efforts to keep it alive until groundfish stocks recover and conservation restrictions are eased. 

Nowhere are the effects of the industry’s drastic decline more obvious than in Portland, where the loss of fishing-related businesses is taking place in tandem with zoning changes that make it easier for non-marine businesses to occupy the city’s “working waterfront.”

Some signs of the coming collapse…

• The volume of fish traded at the Portland Fish Exchange is at its lowest point in the auction house’s two-decade history. Since the public facility – which handles the vast majority of groundfish trade in Maine – opened in 1987, yearly volumes have rarely dipped below 15 million pounds. “We’re now below eight million,” the Exchange’s general manager, Hank Soule, said this month. 

If this trend continues – and most industry observers expect it will – the Exchange will be bankrupt within 12-to-18 months, despite a recent decision by its board of directors to raise the fees assessed to fish buyers and sellers. In two letters sent to Governor John Baldacci earlier this year, Soule noted that the Exchange was operating at a loss of $8,000 per week as of August, and had cut half its workforce, 25 jobs, which combined represented $1 million in wages and benefits provided to fishing industry workers.


(source/Portland Fish Exchange)
(source/Portland Fish Exchange)

• The businesses that support Maine’s groundfishing fleet – such as providers of ice and fishing gear, and fish-processing companies – are dwindling and, in some cases, disappearing. A state task force’s 2004 report on the industry noted that in the late 1980s, four companies sold commercial fishing gear in Portland, and at the time of the report’s release, only one remained, Vessel Services. That number is now zero, since Vessel Services stopped selling gear this past August.

Businesses like Vessel Services provide what industry analysts refer to as the “critical mass” of fishing-related enterprises necessary to support the trade through its ups and downs. “We’re now starting to lose the critical mass that keeps the fishing industry together,” said Judith Harris of the Portland-based industry group Associated Fisheries of Maine. “Once the critical mass is gone, you don’t get it back. We will not have a fishing industry.”

• State studies and anecdotal evidence both indicate that the large and medium-sized fishing vessels that once comprised the bulk of Maine’s groundfishing fleet are increasingly doing business in Massachusetts, where state policies and programs provide significant advantages to fish harvesters who work, reside and land their catch in the Bay State rather than the Pine Tree State. The two most significant advantages to landing fish in Massachusetts are the ability to sell lobsters caught in fishing nets (a take known as bycatch) and lower diesel fuel costs.

Maggie Raymond, owner of a Maine commercial fishing vessel and spokesperson for Associated Fisheries of Maine, said there were about a dozen sizeable boats responsible for the majority of the volume at the Portland Fish Exchange. “They’ve relocated mostly to Gloucester,” she said. 

Raymond’s boat is now among those vessels. “Last year, we landed all of our fish in Massachusetts for the first time,” she said. “I calculated we saved about $7,500 just in sales tax on fuel. We grossed about $100,000 in lobster bycatch. 

“We did not want to relocate to Massachusetts,” Raymond continued. “We much prefer to do business in Maine. But once you get below break-even, you can’t make those kind of quality-of-life decisions. You have to make decisions based on your business being in business, and that’s what we did.”

Lobster politics

Of the two biggest factors luring Maine boats to Massachusetts – diesel-fuel costs and lobster bycatch – the bycatch issue is the most significant, but given the political muscle of Maine’s lobster industry, it’s also the least likely to be addressed. 

“I think it’s fair to say that the biggest issue is bycatch, and nobody’s got the political guts to stand up to the lobstermen,” said Portland City Councilor Jim Cloutier, member of a city-appointed task force that studied the fishing industry’s woes several years ago. “As a result, the policy choice is that means all the fishermen go to Massachusetts. That’s the way it is.”

The city task force Cloutier served on forwarded its finding and recommendations to state officials, and in 2003, Baldacci created the state task force that released its own report two years ago. [Click here to read that report.]

The Governor’s Task Force on the Groundfish Industry – a group comprised of state officials, lawmakers, fish harvesters and industry experts – made over 30 recommendations to assist the industry while it weathers federal restrictions imposed to help groundfish stocks off New England’s coast rebound from decades of overfishing.

High atop that list were a recommendation to repeal the sales tax on diesel fuel for licensed fishing vessels and an appeal for $5 million in federal emergency relief funds. The group stopped short of calling for the sale of lobster bycatch in Maine, but urged state officials to find some way to otherwise compensate fishermen who forego the profits of selling bycatch lobster in other states. 

With the exception of a change to the State Constitution allowing marine-industrial waterfront property to be taxed based on its current use (rather than its higher market value) – a change approved by voters last year – few if any of the task force’s recommendations have been acted upon. 

City officials in Portland are clearly frustrated by the state’s inaction on this issue, and are beginning to speak out and take action on their own. 

“There was a [state] task force, but to my knowledge not a single fucking thing from that task force has been done,” said City Councilor Ed Suslovic, a former state legislator who chairs the City Council’s Legislative Committee. “If the Portland Fish Exchange was a pulp and paper mill – and it does have the economic impact of one of those paper mills – the Governor… would be down here in a heartbeat. There doesn’t seem to be any willingness to lift a finger to help the groundfish industry.”


photo/Chris Busby
photo/Chris Busby

Suslovic said he and Councilor Karen Geraghty are crafting a resolution, expected to be taken up at the City Council’s Oct. 4 session, calling for “an emergency meeting” of the Council’s Legislative Committee, Governor Baldacci and state lawmakers from Portland “to discuss, in specifics, what steps we feel the state needs to take.”

“This can’t wait ’til next summer,” Suslovic added.

Groundfishing advocates say the change in Maine’s lobster bycatch law they’re seeking would do no harm to the state’s lobster industry. As is the case in Massachusetts, there would be strictly enforced limits on the type and number of lobsters groundfish harvesters can land.

The change would also be temporary, said proponent Tom Valleau, President of the Portland Fish Exchange’s Board of Directors. Valleau said the bycatch provision would be sunsetted to end after five years, and further limited to the winter months when large draggers work far offshore. After five years, the expectation is that federal restrictions will have sufficiently eased to allow Maine fishermen to compete on more equal terms with those working in Massachusetts and other areas closer to major fishing grounds like George’s Bank.

Valleau said he and others have calculated the impact of allowing all the groundfishing boats in Maine to land the maximum allowable amount of lobster bycatch on every fishing trip they take in a given year. In total, he said, that “might be about 300,000 pounds of lobster compared with the current take in the industry of 60 million pounds.”

“Even if every groundfishing boat landed the maximum in every trip, their take [would be] not only a drop in the bucket, it [would be] a drop in the sea,” said Suslovic. “Most of these lobsters are being caught and landed anyway. They’re just going to Massachusetts.”

Valleau added another perspective on the situation: “For the sake of 500 lobsters, we’re losing 30,000 pounds of haddock.”

Other numbers illuminate the political pressures that keep the bycatch issue off the table. “There are a few hundred groundfishermen in Maine and a few thousand lobstermen,” said Cloutier.

No one from the Maine Lobstermen’s Association returned a call seeking comment on this issue. Governor Baldacci’s office also failed to respond to a request for comment before deadline.

In the process of interviewing candidates for our forthcoming voters’ guide, Bollardfreelance reporter Erik Eisele has thus far asked 12 State House contenders in Portland ¬– both incumbents and challengers from the Democratic, Republican and Green Independent parties – what steps can be taken to help Maine’s fishing industry. None mentioned either the bycatch or sales tax issues.

State Senator Dennis Damon served on the Governor’s groundfish task force and chairs the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee, in addition to representing the state as one of three commissioners appointed to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a body that works to manage and sustain both groundfish and shellfish stocks. Previous efforts to consider changes to Maine’s bycatch law “never did get any traction,” said Damon, and any new effort would have “a very low probability” of passage given the concerns of Maine lobstermen.

Tradition bows to tourism

In what Maine’s groundfishing advocates note is a cruel irony, the state’s fishing industry is collapsing at the same time groundfish stocks are increasing off our coast. 

“The challenge Maine faces is how to protect and strengthen our groundfish industry so that it can weather the next few years and survive to reap the benefit of those increasing populations of fish,” the state task force wrote in its 2004 report. “Fishing will be a growth industry over the next 20 years. The question is will it grow in Maine or somewhere else?”

The loss of businesses in Portland that service and support the groundfishing fleet is a dire sign. “When you lose that kind of infrastructure – whether it’s an ice facility or Vessel Services’ facility or, certainly, an auction house – you pretty much have decimated the industry,” said Damon. 

“We’re basically losing our infrastructure, and once that’s gone, it doesn’t come back,” said Raymond. “If we lose the Fish Exchange, that would be a tremendous loss, I think, to everybody.”

“Whether the Maine groundfishing industry is approaching a tipping point or has passed a tipping point, we don’t know,” said Valleau. “But the situation is very serious. We’re in danger of losing one of our most historic and significant industries on the coast.”

Valleau stressed that though on its “current trajectory” the Fish Exchange “runs out of cash in 12-to-18 months,” that does not necessarily mean the facility will close. 

Councilor Cloutier agreed. “My guess is we would not do that ’til the last dog dies.

“It is possible to operate the Fish Exchange independent of the fishermen and try to preserve the opportunity for years to come,” Cloutier added, saying fish could be trucked to the Exchange from other ports “as a way to keep volume on the floor.”

But Cloutier conceded that would be “a temporary treaty,” and one can’t help but see parallels with another city-owned marine facility on the other end of the waterfront: the Portland Ocean Terminal (POT).

Despite the city’s best efforts to attract business to the marine industrial facility, the POT is largely vacant and has become a drain on the city budget. In an effort to attract a wider range of businesses to the site, the City Council recently amended zoning on and around the POT to allow more non-marine uses there – including a change that would allow a hotel to be built on waterfront land adjacent to the POT’s pier. 

Prior to that zoning change, the Council relaxed similar marine-use requirements in the so-called Waterfront Central Zone (WCZ), which encompasses the Portland Fish Pier (home of the Exchange) and other piers traditionally considered to comprise the city’s “working waterfront.” Those zoning changes now allow non-marine businesses to occupy more space in buildings on piers previously restricted to water-dependent uses. The original zoning was enacted after a 1987 citizen referendum – inspired by a boom of condominium development on the waterfront – placed a moratorium on non-marine uses in the area.

Hotels and condos are still not among the developments permitted in this zone, but that could change, too. In light of the Council’s decision earlier this month to allow a hotel on city-owned land near the POT, city officials have told at least one pier owner, Steve DiMillo, that they are open to discussing hotel development on Long Wharf. That wharf, located in the center of Portland’s “working waterfront,” is currently a parking lot that serves DiMillo’s Floating Restaurant and Marina.

Suslovic said he supported the WCZ zoning change after walking up and down Portland’s piers and wharves and noting the “tremendous amount of vacant space.” 

“There’s actually a shortage of marine uses” on Portland’s waterfront, said Suslovic, and “little or no demand for additional space for marine uses. As we continue to lose boats to Massachusetts, there’ll be less and less demand for that.”

“All the people championing the working waterfront – where are they on this issue?” asked Suslovic. With a palpable tone of exasperation, he added, “We might as well condo-ize the whole damn waterfront, because there’s going to be no fishermen left.”

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