Eben Nieuwkerk sends a barrel full of fish up and out of the hold on his gillnet fishing boat Shannon Kristine at the Portland Fish Exchange on Monday. Nieuwkerk credits the Maine Coast Fishermen's Assocation's recent buying program with stabilizing fish prices. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — The first rays of yellow light slashed through the indigo gloom Monday morning while the city awoke and rubbed its eyes. All was still quiet up the hill in the business district, but down on the docks the day was already humming. By 6:30 a.m., a hardy, rubber-booted crew of workmen were on a smoke break after unloading their first boat of the day at the Fish Exchange. They still had two boats — and more than 10,000 pounds of ice-packed fish — to go.

It’s cold, hard, slimy work but they welcomed it. Business has been more than slow.

Under current pandemic pressures, the Portland Fish Exchange and the state’s groundfishing fleet are struggling to survive. Fish prices have bottomed out, forcing some boats to stay docked. At the same time, droves of newly hungry Mainers are facing coronavirus-induced economic hardships and asking their local food pantries for help. With uncaught fish at sea and famished people on land, the situation is a mismatched, ironic tragedy.

But the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association has a plan to help.

Armed with an anonymous, $200,000 grant, it’s buying fish before it hits the auction and donating the catch to local schools and food banks. The move helps keep auction prices steady while also making hard-to-find, healthy protein available to folks who need it most.

Workmen sort and weigh the catch at the Portland Fish Exchange on Monday morning. Most of the days fish was later bought by the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association for their charity program benefiting hungry Mainers and fishermen alike. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The Fishermen’s Association is an industry-based nonprofit looking to restore the Gulf of Maine fisheries and help local fishing communities. 

“It’s a golden opportunity,” said Brian Pearce, captain of the gillnetter Gracelyn Jane just before emptying his hold on Monday. “It gives us a fair price on the fish. Otherwise, I wouldn’t even be fishing. I stayed tied up all summer.”

Pearce said the Fishermen’s Association was making regular minimum bids at auction above what his pollock was going for before the program started. Knowing there’s a steady price for his catch after a three-day trip to sea makes all the difference.

“We’re going to get the same price, no matter how many pounds come in today,” he said. 

Eben Nieuwkerk, captain of the 45-foot Shannon Kristine, agreed.

“It’s stabilizing the price,” Nieuwkerk said. “That’s big.”

On Monday, the Fishermen’s Association bought 6,000 pounds of fish out of the 9,000 Nieuwkerk netted about 50 miles from shore. 

“It’s as close to Maine as you can find fish,” he said.

From left (clockwise): Brian Pearce of the 45-foot gillnet fishing boat Gracelyn Jane watches a barrel of fish get dumped into a chute at the Portland Fish Exchange on Monday; Jim Townshend handles a fish while weighing and sorting the day’s catch at the Portland Fish Exchange on Monday; The 45-foot gill netter Shannon Kristine (left) passes the Christina Carol at the Portland Fish Exchange on Monday.

Nearly all groundfish landed in Maine are auctioned at the Portland Fish Exchange. According to the Fishermen’s Association, auction prices for hake, haddock and pollock recently dropped 73 percent from the five-year average as demand for seafood evaporated during the pandemic.

The drop is due to lack of demand as consumers stay away from seafood restaurants, said Nick Pappas, general manager of the fish exchange. Last year, his organization netted 1.8 million pounds of fish.

“This year, we’ll be lucky to get 1.5 million,” Pappas said. “That’s COVID — and if there’s bad news about the virus, the next day, the prices tank. We saw some record low prices for fish.”

In its heyday, back in the 80s and 90s, the exchange regularly brought in 30 million pounds of fish per year. It’s operated at a loss for several years and has recently made moves to diversify into aquaculture.

As the pandemic hit, Pappas said, pollock plummeted to just over $1 at auction, making it economically unfeasible for boats to fish, given their overhead. Now, it’s back up in the region of $1.80 per pound thanks to the Fishermen’s Association, which is buying the catch before it hits the auction and guaranteeing $2 per pound.

“Now the fishermen are going out, knowing what kind of price they’re going to get,” Pappas said. “That’s huge.”

Capt. Brian Pearce stands in the stern of his gillnet boat the Gracelyn Jane at the Portland Fish Exchange on Monday. Pearce said the Fishermen Feeding Mainers program is a “golden opportunity.” Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

After buying the fish, the Fishermen’s Association pays to have the catch processed and frozen. Then, it makes its way to the Good Shepherd Food Bank, the state’s largest anti-hunger organization.

The Good Shepherd runs several food programs, mostly helping supply smaller, local food pantries across Maine. The fish comes in through the Mainers Feeding Mainers program, which matches Maine grown and harvested food with people who need it.

Before the pandemic, Maine had the highest child hunger rate in all of New England with at least 70,000 — or one out of five — children experiencing food insecurity. Now, the numbers are even worse.

The fish will help, said Nancy Perry at the Good Shepherd.

“It’s great protein and something we’re always looking for,” said Perry, who runs the Mainers Feeding Mainers program. 

The Good Shepherd normally must purchase high quality, healthy protein like the fish, which comes frozen in individually packaged fillets. 

“And it’s very expensive,” Perry said. 

Perry said, with the pandemic, her organization saw demand for help increase as much as 25 percent at some of the pantries they help stock when it struck this spring. Demand leveled off as the federal government provided temporary assistance but now, with that money dried up and the virus crashing in a second wave, she expects it to get worse.

“We’re seeing those numbers on the rise again,” she said. “And we expect them to continue to climb.”

The fish has just started to go out to smaller food banks and Perry expects to get feedback soon. The Good Shepherd also produced a cooking video for clients who may be unfamiliar with preparing fresh fish.

In addition to the Good Shepherd, some of the fish has been donated to Maine schools where students have eaten it in tacos, chowders and encrusted in panko.

Those school systems include Westbrook, Scarborough, Gould Academy, Brunswick, RSU 14 in the Windham area and RSU 12 in the Somerville area.

As of Monday, the Fishermen’s Association had donated just over 54,000 pounds of landed fish, said Mary Hudson, the project manager. After processing, that translates into just about 27,000 pounds of edible fillets, which have gone mostly to the food bank. Assuming a serving size of 6-ounce portions, that’s roughly 72,000 meals. 

Hudson is mum on where the initial $200,000 anonymous donation came from but said it will buy around 80,000 pounds of fish. The association also has a goal of raising $50,000 in individual donations to keep the program rolling. 

To that end, Hudson got good news this week. Gov. Janet Mills’ office just sent word that the association will be getting another $200,000 through the federal CARES Act. 

“We’re super excited,” Hudson said. 

There’s a catch, though. It must be spent before the end of the year. Netting that much fish in such a short time will be difficult but Hudson said she remains hopeful.

“We want it to go as far as possible,” she said. “With the virus surging again, it’s going to be a rough winter.”

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Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.