September 22, 2013

Portland's fresh connection with Iceland

Market opportunities and a wealth of potential flow both ways in a new North Atlantic sea-trade partnership that relinks Maine's largest port to a far wider world.

By Tom Bell
Staff Writer

PORLAKSHOFN, Iceland - Shipping fish fillets on jet planes is costly and exposes the fish to temperature spikes that degrade the quality of the meat.

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A view of Reykjavik, Iceland's largest city and the world's most northern capital, Saturday, Sept. 14. The city has 120,00 residents, and more than 200,000 people live in the Greater Reykjavik Area.

Tom Bell/Press Herald

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The steamship line Eimskip loads containers on a ship at the International Marine Terminal in Portland last week. The company’s routes connect to ports in Canada and Europe.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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That worries Arsaell Hreidarsson, who raises Arctic char at his fish farm on Iceland's south coast and ships fillets by air to the United States for distribution by a national supermarket chain.

The solution: ship fresh fish on refrigerated containers by sea to the port of Portland. That option was made possible when Iceland's largest steamship line, Eimskip, earlier this year moved its U.S. port of call from Norfolk, Va., to Portland, saving five days sailing time across the North Atlantic.

"Eimskip's move to Portland opens up potential," Hreidarsson said. "It is crucial to us because it allows us to enter the market with a fresh product."

The opportunities go both ways.

Maine's unlikely new partnership with this small island nation near the Arctic Circle stands to open up new opportunities for Maine's economy and revive Portland's long-stagnant waterfront.

The new service gives Maine exporters and importers direct connection to Iceland, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Norway. And from Norway, Eimskip operates routes that connect to ports in England, ports as far north as Murmansk, Russia, and ports as far south as Hamburg, Germany, and Europe's largest port: Rotterdam, Netherlands.

It is the first container service between Europe and Maine since the early 1980s.

So far, companies in Maine are shipping frozen french fries, blueberries, processed lobster, gas stoves, pleasure boats and household goods.

Eimskip is importing frozen cod and haddock, bottled water, lamb meat and cryolite, a mineral important in the production of aluminum.

While some products, such as fish and bottled water, end up on the market in Maine, most of Eimskip's imports are shipped from the Portland waterfront by rail and truck to other destinations in the United States.

In its first six months in Portland, Eimskip worked on operational issues related to the move to Maine. Satisfied that operations are now running smoothly, the company is starting to market the service to customers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Eimskip is not just selling its shipping service. Working with the Maine Port Authority and Maine International Trade Center, the company is also offering "matchmaking" services, essentially making introductions between businesses and distributors who can help businesses find customers in a new country.

Maine businesses stand to benefit from the move because their close proximity to Portland lowers transportation costs and opens up markets they haven't been able to access before, said David Bernhardt, commissioner of the Maine Department of Transportation.

He said Eimskip is an ideal partner for Maine because its relatively small size compared to the global steamship lines that operate in New York allows it to be nimble as it works with Maine companies to develop trade opportunities. From its new Portland office, Eimskip can work with small companies directly and consolidate shipments from several companies and put them into a single container, he said.

Gov. Paul LePage, who helped recruit Eimskip to Portland, wants the new container service to succeed because it will create jobs statewide, Bernhardt said.

"This is a game changer," he said.

Both sides seem determined to make the partnership work, with two state officials traveling to Iceland earlier this month to study Eimskip's port operations and to reassure Eimskip executives that Maine is committed to upgrading Portland's cargo terminal and extending rail service to it.

To be successful, both sides need to move beyond spreadsheets and logistics and build personal relationships that foster easy communication and trust. That appears to be happening.

Last month, for example, Jack Humeniuk, business agent for the union representing Portland's longshoremen, brought Larus Isfeld, general manager for Eimskip USA, and Petur Peterson, Eimskip's Portland station agent, and their wives and children to his family cottage on Sebago Lake. For three hours Humeniuk sped around the lake in his motorboat giving everyone tube rides.

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Additional Photos

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Margnus Freyt Jonsson manages the Skuh slaughterhouse in Hvammstangi in western Iceland, which will ship lamb meat to Portland for distribution in the U.S.

Tom Bell/Staff Writer

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Larus Isfeld serves as general manager for Eimskip USA. The Iceland-based shipping company made Portland its only port of call in the United States this year, and wants the city to become its gateway to a larger U.S. consumer market.

Tom Bell/Staff Writer

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Patrick Arnold, left, and John Henshaw, center, of the Maine Port Authority listen to Tryggvi Hardarson, plant manager of the water-bottler that produces Icelandic Glacial, earlier this month. Officials in Maine and Iceland alike seem determined to build relationships and make a blossoming trade partnership work.

Tom Bell/Staff Writer

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Arctic char, a cold-water fish native to Arctic and sub-Arctic lakes and coastal waters, is raised in a fish farm on the Icelandic coast and has become a principal export. The farm raises 400,000 of the fish a year.

Tom Bell/Staff Writer

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Tom Bell/Staff Writer

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Gudrun Arnadottir, 20, fillets Arctic char at Nattura Arctic Charr, a fish processor in Porlakshofn, a fishing port on the southern coast of Iceland, on Sept. 12.

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