The Portland Fish Exchange is facing financial difficulties — not for the first time, because downturns in the fishery always place strain on related industries. The first display fish auction in the country, Portland’s exchange was planned and launched in record time, opening in 1986 before the longer-planned New York/New Jersey Fishport, which was more expensive and lasted no time at all.
Portland’s auction is a success story, no matter what its current financial difficulty. It’s a credit to the Portland waterfront and Maine. It deserves any help the fishing industry, the city of Portland and the state can provide, so the Exchange will be around when the fish come back.
Anything, that is, except the idea that’s been floated to allow Maine trawlers to land lobsters which can then be sold at the auction. This suggestion has too many pitfalls to be given serious consideration. Lobsters dredged up from the bottom by trawlers are more likely to be dead or damaged and missing claws, more prone to die in the tank. Maine lobstermen have worked long and hard to brand their product as high quality, creating demand for Maine lobsters throughout the world. Maine lobster is one of the premier seafood products in the world. Maine’s 6,000 lobstermen, having worked hard to win a ban on the sale of trawler-caught lobsters in the state, won’t give this one up without a fight.
But the fight shouldn’t even have to happen. Changing the rules to allow trawlers to land lobsters is a slippery slope that could destroy the reputation of Maine lobsters and perhaps harm the resource itself. Who can say the lobsters landed would be by-catch or targeted? It’s difficult to prove either way. And in case no one remembers, lobsters used to be, and probably still are for some New England boats, ‘shack.’ Shack is the unrecorded, illegal sale of lobsters for cash that is divided among the crew.
In fact, when the rules to allow Massachusetts boats to land 500 lobsters were under consideration, vessels had to prove historic catch. Many couldn’t. They’d been hauling up lobsters, but selling them illegally for years. Also, allowing the sale of trawler-caught lobster is no guarantee the Exchange will make money. It’s not even a guarantee that Maine trawlers that now drag up lobsters and take them for sale in Massachusetts or New Hampshire, will change their habits for many other reasons — including lower berthing fees, and often, higher prices for the catch. This idea appears more to be an opportunity to roll back a rule Maine groundfishermen have never liked than a way to help the Exchange.
Pat White is a York lobstermen who was the long-time head of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association and is now a member of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. He read in a recent news story the suggestion that Maine could, like Massachusetts, allow the landing of 500 lobsters per trawler trip, and that could bring $10,000 to $12,000 per trip to the groundfishermen. “At that, the lobsters landed would average 6 lbs., which are illegal to land or sell in Maine anyway,” said White. “They would still have to go to Massachusetts.”
Meanwhile, the auction doesn’t need trawler-caught lobster to sell lobster. Nothing stops the Exchange from selling trap-caught lobsters now, if officials so desire. “They tried selling lobsters years ago, and they couldn’t make a go of it,” White said. “Why don’t they redirect their effort into marketing or brokering some of the 8,000 metric tons of shrimp that will be available this winter? There may also be other species they are not currently handling that could generate additional income.”
Maine’s lobstermen have succeeded in getting other states to agree to implement many of their conservation measures, such as maximum landing size, v-notching of egg-bearing females. Many Maine rules have been implemented by ASMFC, which manages the resource for the federal government. Other proposals to help the Maine groundfish industry, such as eliminating the tax on diesel fuel for fishing boats, are good ideas. But these are ideas that must handled at the state level, through the legislature.
Still, there’s no guarantee any such measures will materially help the Exchange to survive. The exchange should be subsidized until the industry recovers, or until it’s proven beyond a reasonable doubt that there will never again be a need for it — which is an unlikely circumstance. “We can’t use lobster to save the groundfish industry or the Exchange,” said White. Maine lobster is currently holding the infrastructure of the whole coast together.”
“We’re willing to help groundfishermen survive, work to reduce the taxes, anything that doesn’t harm our industry,” said White. “But this kind of thing drives a wedge.”
Nancy Griffin writes about fisheries and other matters for Working Waterfront.