Sourcing Fresh Maine Seafood

The Portland Fish Exchange and Browne Trading Company

In early September our blog examined the lengths we go to get ocean fresh seafood to your kitchen. When it comes to freshness and superior quality, it begins with the catch method, continues with the fishermen and finishes with the fishmonger.

Browne’s goal is to only ever provide the freshest, highest quality seafood available. That includes the seafood caught in Maine. One of the best sources of fresh Maine fish is the Portland Fish Exchange. The Exchange has been critical to Browne’s success.

There are many reasons why the Exchange has been such a crucial element to Browne’s success over the years. The biggest is that it has allowed Browne to inspect its seafood before purchasing. This has meant that Browne only ever purchases seafood they know is of the highest quality.

This blog explains what the Portland Fish Exchange is and how it works.

Did you know that the Portland Fish Exchange was the first “Display” Fish Auction in the United States?

History of the Portland Fish Exchange

Portland Fish Exchange
Portland Fish Exchange staff weighing and sorting the fresh fish into lots

The Portland Fish Exchange is the State of Maine’s foremost institution for the landing of commercial ground species. These primarily include cod, monkfishhaddock, and halibut, among others.

The Exchange was founded in 1986 and is located several hundred feet behind Browne Trading. This location, right in the heart of the working waterfront, is naturally ideal for Browne’s purchasing department.

Unlike any other facility on the Eastern Seaboard, it has become 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 Portland Fish Exchange is  “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. This 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. 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.

Browne Trading and the Portland Fish Exchange

Our daily access to the Portland Fish Exchange, 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 who were tired of receiving aged and mishandled fish.

Browne’s owner, Rod Browne Mitchell, was at the helm of championing changes in the way the fish are treated from net to auction. Rod would frequently speak with fishermen to educate them on how to get the fish to market in the best possible condition.

The techniques to ensure freshness include; gutting, bleeding, and icing the fish on deck immediately. This is opposed to letting the fish sit in water. The fishermen that implemented these changes began to command higher and higher prices on the auction in return for their care.

Thrilled with the freshness, chefs began to clamor further for those fish in a “pristine” physical state.

Traceable Seafood

Portland Fish Exchange
Fishing vessels approaching the Portland Fish Exchange

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. These vessels range from 30 to 90+ feet and are either 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 the 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 target our purchases specific to these boats. We can, in fact, tell our customers which vessels 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 Portland Fish Exchange prior to the daily auction. The auction takes place Sunday through Thursday at 11 A.M. Species are sorted by the Portland Fish Exchange staff, weighed into lots, tagged with the vessels name, lot number, and date landed.

Portland Fish Exchange
Portland Fish Exchange lots ready to be inspected

The lots are then placed into corresponding species stations on the floor of the Exchange. This is 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.

A big advantage of the auction is the purchasing flexibility of the purchasers. Purchasers 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 Portland Fish Exchange, 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.

Their Commitment

The Portland Fish Exchange 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 Portland Fish Exchange 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 ensure the Portland Fish Exchange’s mission is continued to support Maine’s working waterfront and commercial fishing interests.”

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