Behind the scenes at the fish exchange

By Leslie Taylor, National Fisherman Online Editor

As I’m relatively new to the commercial fishing beat, my visit a couple of weeks ago to the Portland Fish Exchange, the nation’s first seafood display auction, was eye-opening for me. I had never really thought much before about the mechanics of the process that takes a fish from the hands of the fisherman who caught it to my grocery counter. 

I was at the Portland Fish Exchange in Portland, Maine, to shoot a video with National Fisherman Publisher Jerry Fraser about the advantages of fish as a protein option, particularly with the rising costs of beef and poultry. The video is embedded below.

The Casco Bay was shrouded in fog when we arrived at the Portland Fish Exchange at around seven in the morning to meet Bert Jongerden, general manager of the exchange. Because Jongerden has been general manager of the exchange since 2007, and also worked there from 1990-1996 as an operations manager, he has, as he said, “seen the rise and fall of our groundfish.” He’s seen groundfish landings go from 30 million pounds per year to about 5 million pounds per year. 

As the fog burned off, we did some filming and Jerry and I chatted with the exchange employees smoking on the pier, waiting for the arrival of the fishing vessel Robert Michael. Approximately 70 fishing vessels sell their catch via the Portland Fish Exchange and what makes this market unique is that it’s an all display auction. Seafood buyers don’t just bid generically on fish, they can bid on a specific load of fish. So fisherman can get a higher price for fish that are in the best condition.

Using a block and tackle, the guys hoisted large blue buckets filled with pollock, redfish, cod and hake from the hold of the Robert Michael and dumped them down a chute into the sorting facility. The fish first landed in a basin where excess water could drain, then were pulled up a conveyer belt towards a team of Grundens-clad employees who culled the fish by type, quality and size.

05.08.14 fishexchangeThe fish were sorted into plastic tubs and iced. One employee manned the computer station, using what looked like a price gun you might see at a checkout counter to scan the barcode associated with each fish size and quality, then printed out labels for the tubs.

The tubs of fish were then whisked by forklift to the floor of the exchange’s giant refrigerated warehouse, where they could be examined by buyers in anticipation of the day’s auction. Auctions are held at 11:00 a.m. Sunday through Thursday and there are about 20 buyers who are quite active participants, Jongerden explained. 

The auction is now entirely run via computer. When groundfish were being hauled in at the rate of 30 million a year, a lot of companies would have a fish buyer based in Portland full time. But the reduction in landings has meant that most purchases are now done remotely.

It’s a reverse clock auction, which begins with a relatively high asking price that is lowered until some participant is willing to buy. Buyers login to the Portland Fish Exchange auction system through a VPN connection and they begin bidding by depressing the space bar on their keyboard. The last person to pick their finger off the space bar will win the bid. 

What struck me was how much the whole process of conveying a fish from the sea to the plate of someone who did not catch it has changed with the implementation of new technologies. While it is a transaction that must have been a part of coastal communities since the dawn of civilization, VPN lines and pricing guns have made it a whole new ballgame. 

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