South Portland pier presents promise, problems

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The city is considering ways to improve the Portland Street Pier so it will better accommodate commercial fishermen and widen their reach to include the fast-growing aquaculture market.

At a City Hall meeting Dec. 14 with officials and stakeholders about how to best utilize the pier, City Councilor Claude Morgan said the city must invest in repairs along with a vision for the property. The meeting was held to update stakeholders on the context for the pier project, as well as provide an opportunity for input.

The city hired consulting and engineering firm GEI Consultants of Portland in November to conduct a site assessment, a conceptual design and a feasibility analysis. The consulting work will cost nearly $47,000 and is being paid for by a Maine Coastal Program grant awarded last spring. 

In an overview of what are likely important considerations for the project, Sam Merrill of GEI, who lives close to the pier, said the structural framework is strong, although cosmetic improvements are needed. Expansion should also be considered, Merrill said.

He added issues such as dredging, cold storage, the dimensions and the number of slips allowed all must be decided, as well as how to best mitigate wind currents.

A follow-up meeting on the project is slated for April and will include design and economic comparisons.

Assistant City Manager Josh Reny said the big picture includes economic development, and opportunities the pier could create for the city. 

Morgan, who lives just a few blocks from the pier, said South Portland has a unique waterfront, although he identifies some of the uses as outdated, and said there is an opportunity to take something old and rebuild it anew.

The pier, in Ferry Village, has been city-owned since the 19th century, when it was constructed for shipbuilding. The property now leases 15 slips to lobster and tuna fishermen from April to November. Revenue from those leases ranges from $20,000 to $25,000, on which the city breaks even, Reny said.

As a result the pier is not self-sustaining. Challenges also include no business and maintenance plans for the pier and security concerns, he added.

Scarborough lobsterman Rick Sullivan, who is now semi-retired and hauls about 200 traps off his 32-foot boat Whistler, has used the dock for about 30 years to set and take up his gear. He said ideally, the pier should be widened and made into a year-round wharf. He said if the area around the pier is dredged, it could be used year-round and would attract more fishermen.

“I couldn’t do without it. You can’t find a berth to tie a boat anymore, it’s the only working pier we have,” Sullivan said, adding commercial water access is becoming scarce. “It’s a good working pier,” he said, adding the fishermen get along well and solve challenges amongst themselves. 

But he said the pier needs improvements, noting some of its planks need replacing and although it has a winch on one side, the tide has to be right for fishermen to be able to use the device. 

Sullivan, who is usually done fishing by early December, also said winter northeast winds are hard on the pier and docked boats.

“It’s not made for it, it gets smashed up,” he said, arguing a concrete pier and steel pilings would be a sound investment.

“They will have to spend a lot of money here for the future,” Sullivan said, adding he is glad the city is exploring options to update the structure. 

Also at the meeting was Gulf of Maine Research Institute aquaculture program manager Chris Vonderweidt, who shared data from a study on the market outlook for aquaculture programs in the state. 

“The bottom won’t fall out anytime soon,” Vonderweidt said, adding Maine-grown shellfish is considered the gold standard among American chefs and the market will take as much as the state can produce.

GMRI is involved because it works with working waterfronts on economic development, and Vonderweidt said within 10 miles of the pier there are 50 start-up sites as well as six commercial leases to grow mussels, oysters and kelp. 

The city is considering allowing designated space for aquaculture farmers to use the pier, but one aquaculture farmer in attendance said it is a year-round, everyday business, so seasonal facilities and seasonal access are automatic disadvantages.

GEI’s Varoujan Hagopian said fishing and aquaculture have different ways and means of doing things, and sometimes, harmony between the two breaks down. “We need to understand that,” he said.

Collectively, the city, consultants, and fisherman must identify a functional design that supports all needs, he said. Designs may be for half commercial fishing use and half aquaculture, or two piers may be built to accomodate both uses, Hagopian suggested.

He added the breakwater needs to be bigger, and must adequately protect the pier. He said a rock breakwater takes up a lot of space, and a wave screen would offer the same protection from the winds and use less space.

Hagopian acknowledged parking at the pier will be an issue, and the design will have to be creative in looking at the area, and not just the property boundary lines. The properties on either side of the pier are privately owned, he noted. 

Portland’s waterfront coordinator, Bill Needelman, said he encourages the city to consider what’s possible at the pier despite its land constraints, and consider synergies with Portland.

As an example, he said if fueling is difficult at the South Portland pier, the Portland fish pier is just across the river.

“Don’t worry about missing certain components if you can look at other properties to make it a functional facility,” Needelman said.

Juliette Laaka can be reached at 781-3661 ext.,106 or

The Portland Street Pier in South Portland is one of the only docks available for commercial fishermen in the city, which is considering investments in the property.