Sourcing: Portland Fish Exchange
Since our inception in 1991, Browne Trading has relied on the supply of the freshest local Gulf of Maine seafood harvested by our Portland Fishing Fleet. Our daily access to this source, coupled with our ability to move it “ocean fresh” overnight directly to our clientele, was the foundation of our initial notoriety to the industry. This immediate “sea to table” sourcing was groundbreaking in the early 1990s for chefs long used to tolerating aging and mishandled fish that took over a week to get to market.
Our continued success would not be possible if it were not for the Portland Fish Exchange, the State of Maine’s foremost institution for the landing of commercial ground species – primarily cod, monkfish, pollock, haddock, and rosefish among others. Founded in 1986 and located literally several hundred feet behind Browne Trading Co. in the heart of our working waterfront, the Portland Fish Exchange (PFE) was unlike any other facility on the Eastern Seaboard – and became the model for the nearby seafood display auctions in Gloucester and New Bedford, Massachusetts. Together, the three ports and auctions comprise the majority of all seafood landed and sold throughout New England.
The PFE is proudly “America’s first all-display fresh seafood auction”. Initiated by the seafood sellers (usually the fishermen themselves) looking to benefit from landing higher quality fish, the unprecedented approach of displaying a catch after offload and prior to purchase was a success for buyer and seller alike. The days of buying a boatload catch “sight unseen” before the vessel even docked came to an end, and the vessels that landed – and handled – the best quality fish were soon rewarded with higher prices. Buyers seeking the best quality fish (Browne Trading at the forefront) benefited by deciding up front which lots best met their standards and adjusted their bids appropriately. Thrilled with the freshness, chefs began to clamor further for those fish in a “pristine” physical state – without excessive bruising from rough handling or deterioration from sitting to long in melted ice. Our owner, Rod Browne Mitchell, was at the helm of championing changes in the way the fish are treated from net to auction, and frequently spoke directly to the fishermen to help educate them on how to get the fish to market in the best possible condition. Techniques like gutting, bleeding, and icing the fish on deck immediately rather than letting them sit in water were employed by many to improve the quality, and those boats soon saw their pristine quality fish command higher prices on the auction in return for their care.
The Portland Fishing Fleet is not a conglomerate of international boats or “factory trawlers” – it is an intimate group of fishermen in smaller vessels with a commitment to fishing and living in Maine. The Fleet currently consists of approximately 70 vessels, ranging from 30 to 90+ feet, and are hook & line, trawlers or gillnetters. These smaller vessels generally make short, or “day boat” trips to sea, limiting the time the fish are caught and out of water. The majority are owner-operated, directly selling their catches on the auction. All lots bear the name of the vessel that landed the fish, making every transaction fully traceable back to the harvesting boat. After years of buying from our local fleet, Browne Trading has recognized the most consistent vessels offloading the best quality catches, and often target our purchases specific to these boats. We can in fact tell our customers which vessel caught the very fish they have purchased from Browne Trading.
How The Auction Works: Vessels land and offload their catches at the docks of the PFE prior to the daily auction, which takes place Sunday through Thursday at 11 A.M. EST. Species are sorted by the PFE staff, weighed into lots in totes, and tagged with the vessels name, lot number, and date landed. The totes are then placed into corresponding species stations on the floor of the Exchange – a temperature –controlled facility of 22,000 feet adjacent to the Portland Fish Pier. Here, buyers inspect the catches prior to convening to the auction room to place bids. Their purchasing flexibility is another advantage of the auction: buyers have no minimum or maximum quantity requirements, and products can range from a mere one pound of fish up to 1,200 pounds.
Until recently, the auction was conducted by a live auctioneer. Now it is handled electronically over the internet, allowing bidders to participate online if they so choose. Once the highest bid for a particular species is confirmed, the winner selects any lots from any boat they desire and may purchase as many as 10 lots per bid. At the PFE, sellers have the right to refuse bids on their catches and relist them again, giving them control over the value of their harvest. Auctions move fast and generally end within an hour. In the case of Browne Trading, our fish purchases are immediately transferred to our neighboring facility and shipped out the same day to awaiting customers.
The PFE is a “non-profit, quasi-public corporation” managed by a Board of Directors (Browne’s Rod Mitchell is currently a sitting member of this Board). Outside its commitment to impartiality towards buyer and seller alike, the PFE prides itself on transferring the most current information on catch and pricing to empower buyers to make informed and competitive decisions. It also has deep commitments to Maine’s seafood industry and the sustainability of fisheries within the Gulf of Maine. “The Portland Fish Exchange’s Mission is to foster and encourage growth & development of fisheries in an environment of transparency, fair-trade and economic security,” says Bert Jongerden, General Manager of the PFE. “Further, our Board of Directors provides leadership at all levels of government to insure the Portland Fish Exchange’s mission is continued to support Maine’s working waterfront and commercial fishing interests.”
The Portland Fish Exchange remains a vital part of Maine’s seafood industry as well as a key contributor to the economic success of the seaport of Portland. During 1991-2003, the PFE ranked first in groundfish landings for all New England ports, and despite subsequent challenges such as tightening fisheries management and boat and permit consolidations, still remains a major contributor to the overall groundfish landings of New England’s fisheries. For decades, it has also been an integral part of the supply chain for Browne Trading Company – with Mr. Mitchell and his purchasing team on the floor of the auction today as they were twenty years past, evaluating and bidding on the best catches of the day. For the many chefs and diners who rely on the best seafood from the Gulf of Maine everyday in fine establishments and home kitchens around the country, the PFE and the fishermen of the Portland Fleet remain critical contributors to the “sea to table” chain.
Species Landed at the PFE:
Cod, Dabs (Lemon Sole), Greysole, Fluke (Flounder), Haddock, Hake, Halibut, Maine Shrimp, Monkfish, Pollock, Redfish, Skate, Swordfish, Tuna
Photos: Jack Lombard, Browne Trading Co.