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Prospect Harbor, ME - The Last U.S. Sardine Factory Shutting Its Doors

Published on: April 14, 2010 02:42 PM
By: AP
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ela Anderson fills cans with sardine steaks at the Stinson sardine cannery in Gouldsboro, Maine. Anderson has worked at the cannery for 54 years. ela Anderson fills cans with sardine steaks at the Stinson sardine cannery in Gouldsboro, Maine. Anderson has worked at the cannery for 54 years.

Prospect Harbor, ME – The intensely fishy smell of herring has been the smell of money for generations of workers in Maine who have snipped, sliced and packed the small, silvery fish into billions of cans of sardines on their way to Americans’ lunch buckets and kitchen cabinets.

For the past 135 years, sardine canneries have been as much a part of Maine’s small coastal villages as the thick Down East fog. It’s been estimated that more than 400 canneries have come and gone along the state’s long, jagged coast.

The lone survivor, the Stinson Seafood plant here in this eastern Maine shoreside town, shuts down this week after a century in operation. It is the last sardine cannery not just in Maine, but in the United States.

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Lela Anderson, 78, has worked in sardine canneries since the 1940s and was among the fastest in sardine-packing contests that were held back in the day. Her packing days are over; now she’s a quality-control inspector looking over the bite-sized morsels in can after can that passes by her.

“It just doesn’t seem possible this is the end,” Anderson lamented last week while taking a break at the plant where she’s worked for 54 years. She and nearly 130 co-workers will lose their jobs.

Once considered an imported delicacy, sardines now have a humble reputation. They aren’t one species of fish. Instead, sardines are any of dozens of small, oily, cold-water fish that are part of the herring family that are sold in tightly packed cans.

In this Thursday, April 8, 2010 photo, a worker fills cans with sardine steaks at the Stinson sardine cannery in Gouldsboro, Maine. The cannery, the last of its kind in the U.S., will shut down this week. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)In this Thursday, April 8, 2010 photo, a worker fills cans with sardine steaks at the Stinson sardine cannery in Gouldsboro, Maine. The cannery, the last of its kind in the U.S., will shut down this week. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

The first U.S. sardine cannery opened in Maine in 1875, when a New York businessman set up the Eagle Preserved Fish Co. in Eastport.

Dozens of plants soon popped up, sounding loud horns and whistles to alert local workers when a boat came in with its catch from the herring-rich ocean waters off Maine. By 1900 there were 75 canneries, where knife-wielding men, women and young children expertly sliced off heads and tails and removed innards before packing them tight into sardine tins.

These days most of the canning is automated and the fish are cut with machines, though still packed by hand. The Stinson packers are all women because they are thought to have stronger backs and better dexterity than men, according to plant manager Peter Colson.

Inside the spacious Stinson plant, dozens of workers in hairnets, aprons and gloves sort, pack and cook the herring that stream along flumes and conveyors. The fish are blanched in a 208-degree steamer for 12 minutes and later, cooked in sealed cans at about 250 degrees for 35 minutes.

Ear plugs muffle the cacophony of clanking cans, rattling conveyor belts, rumbling motors and hissing steam. A fishy smell hangs in the air. Outside, a billboard-sized sign of a fisherman in yellow oilskins holding an oversized can of Beach Cliff sardines, the plant’s primary product, serves as reminder of Maine’s long sardine history.

Colson has been in the sardine business for 38 years. He got his first job as a youngster at another cannery, an hour’s drive away, where his father was the manager.

“This is it. We don’t have any more,” Colson said as he watched workers swiftly pack cans in assembly line fashion. “It’s not easy seeing this go.”

In this Thursday, April 8, 2010 photo, a worker inspects cans at the Stinson sardine cannery in Gouldsboro, Maine. The sardine cannery, the last one operating in the U.S., will shut down this week. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)In this Thursday, April 8, 2010 photo, a worker inspects cans at the Stinson sardine cannery in Gouldsboro, Maine. The sardine cannery, the last one operating in the U.S., will shut down this week. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Production at Maine canneries has been sliding since peaking at 384 million cans in 1950. Faced with declining demand and a changing business climate, the plants went by the wayside one by one until, five years ago, the Stinson plant was the last one standing. Last year it produced 30 million cans.

Still, it came as a surprise to employees when Bumble Bee Foods LLC — which has owned the facility since 2004 — announced in February that the plant would close because of steep cuts in the amount of herring fishermen are allowed to catch in the Northeast. The New England Fishery Management Council set this year’s herring quota at 91,000 metric tons — down from 180,000 tons in 2004 — because of the uncertain scientific outlook of the region’s herring population.

Shortages have forced San Diego-based Bumble Bee to truck in much of the herring needed at the Maine plant from its other cannery in Blacks Harbour, New Brunswick, and from herring suppliers as far away as New Jersey. Even without the quota cuts, the plant was under pressure from shrinking consumer demand, increased foreign competition — primarily from China and Thailand — and thin margins and low prices on the retail market.

Sardines at one time were an inexpensive staple for many Americans who packed them into their lunchboxes and enjoyed a can or two — or perhaps a sardine sandwich — for lunch. The fish — usually packed in oil or in sauces such as mustard, hot sauce, tomato or green chilies — can still be had at supermarkets for a little over $1 a can, but they’re not in too many lunch pails these days.

In this Thursday, April 8, 2010 photo, workers fill cans with sardine steaks at the Stinson sardine cannery in Gouldsboro, Maine. The cannery, the last of its kind in the U.S., will shut down this week. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)In this Thursday, April 8, 2010 photo, workers fill cans with sardine steaks at the Stinson sardine cannery in Gouldsboro, Maine. The cannery, the last of its kind in the U.S., will shut down this week. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Ronnie Peabody, who runs the Maine Coast Sardine History Museum in the town of Jonesport 35 miles up the road from the Stinson plant, has a cookbook published in 1950 called “58 Ways to Serve Sardines.” It includes recipes for sardine soup, sardine casserole, baked eggs and sardines, and creamed sardines and spinach.

Sardine consumption began falling decades ago, he said, after canned tuna came on the market and Americans’ tastes changed. The closing of the last U.S. cannery is the end of an era, he said.

“It’s like reading an obituary in the paper,” he said. “It’s really sad, but what can you do?”

When the last sardine can is packed on Thursday, plant workers say it’ll be like a family being split up.

Many of the employees have worked together for decades. Anderson, a tiny woman with strong hands and a strong back from years of packing small fish pieces into cans, said she’ll be leaving behind close friends when the plant closes.

But she won’t much miss the sardines, which she doesn’t eat.

“I’m not saying I hate them,” she said, “I’m just saying I’m not a big eater of them.”

Talks are in the works to sell the plant to another company to process lobster or other seafoods. Bumble Bee has invested more than $11 million in the plant in recent years, and there’s a work force at the ready.

Bumble Bee operates one of the last two U.S. clam canneries, in Cape May, N.J., and of the last two domestic tuna canneries, in California. But the days of sardine canning in the U.S. are probably gone, said Chris Lischewski, Bumble Bee’s president and CEO.

“I would never say never, but I’d say it’s pretty unlikely,” Lischewski said in a phone interview from California.

In Monterey, Calif., a group of self-described “sardinistas” has taken on the task of trying to get Americans to eat more sardines. It was in Monterey where sardine canneries were made famous in John Steinbeck’s 1945 novel, “Cannery Row,” about the misfits and outcasts on a street lined with sardine canneries.

The group is formulating a business plan in hopes of returning “the lowly sardine to the American palate,” said Mike Sutton, a vice president at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, who says sardines — high in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, low in contaminants — are among the healthiest seafoods around.

But not canned sardines. Sutton’s group wants to promote fresh sardines sold at white-tablecloth restaurants or in foil packs or in prepared foods at retail stores, much the way tuna and salmon are now sold.

“We recognize the American public turns their noses up at sardines,” Sutton said. “It may be a challenge and it may be insurmountable, but our motto is ‘It’s not your grandfather’s sardine.’”


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Read Comments (16)  —  Post Yours »

1

 Apr 14, 2010 at 03:12 PM Anonymous Says:

Very sad!!

This is America! America always felt that if our economy collapses then at least we wont starve to death because we make our own food. But it seems that the cost of labor and the enviormentalists will stop this too.

Enjoy your sardines from Morrocco!!

2

 Apr 14, 2010 at 03:05 PM Anonymous Says:

Will there be no more Kosher sardines?

3

 Apr 14, 2010 at 03:31 PM Anonymous Says:

Reply to #2  
Anonymous Says:

Will there be no more Kosher sardines?

From the OU website: "Season has introduced a number of new Moroccan sardine items." I'm sure there are other kosher Moroccan sardines.

4

 Apr 14, 2010 at 03:42 PM Anonymous Says:

Reply to #2  
Anonymous Says:

Will there be no more Kosher sardines?

The kosher sardines typically come from places like Morocco. They should continue to be available.

5

 Apr 14, 2010 at 04:09 PM Anonymous Says:

"Bumble Bee Foods LLC — which has owned the facility since 2004 — announced in February that the plant would close because of steep cuts in the amount of herring fishermen are allowed to catch in the Northeast"

The environmentalist succeeded in closing another USA company. Just keep voting liberals into office!

Sarah Palin we need you!

6

 Apr 14, 2010 at 04:25 PM Chaim Says:

Reply to #1  
Anonymous Says:

Very sad!!

This is America! America always felt that if our economy collapses then at least we wont starve to death because we make our own food. But it seems that the cost of labor and the enviormentalists will stop this too.

Enjoy your sardines from Morrocco!!

I would advise you to read about the Newfoundland cod fishery before you start talking about "environmentalists". Fish are a renewable resource, but they are not limitless, and it certainly makes sense to restrict fishing to levels which are sustainable.

7

 Apr 14, 2010 at 06:41 PM Anonymous Says:

I think it is sad that I never heard of this American Sardines Company. I live in Plymouth, MI and I have ate Sardines for over 50 years. I like them just the way my father ate them on some buttered toast. I buy 2 cans every 3 weeks. I don't remember the name of the company but I think it had a lighthouse on the box. I also buy the Bumble Bee Gold can Tuna and a Wild Salmon in a can.
People need to know... more advertisements about American made Products so we can Support our USA families and Companies
Sandra Daniels

8

 Apr 14, 2010 at 07:01 PM Anonymous Says:

Reply to #5  
Anonymous Says:

"Bumble Bee Foods LLC — which has owned the facility since 2004 — announced in February that the plant would close because of steep cuts in the amount of herring fishermen are allowed to catch in the Northeast"

The environmentalist succeeded in closing another USA company. Just keep voting liberals into office!

Sarah Palin we need you!

No. The fish populations in the ocean are falling too rapidly to be sustainable. Why is it so hard to find wild caught fish anymore? Because of overfishing for the last 150 years. Best example: Black Sea Sturgeon. Super strict limits due to overfishing for caviar. Take too many fish and you reduce the breeding population to the point that they would never reach the population required to keep feeding people. It's simple math... 2 fish will never feed the millions of people that want them.

9

 Apr 14, 2010 at 07:15 PM Anonymous Says:

I enjoy smoked herrings every Shabbos and Yom Tov ! I eat the Canadian Herrings. Pure cold ocean waters of Canada produce the best herrings and sardines. I also eat the Season Morrocan sardines on Pesach because only they are OUP. That's life. Bumble Bee is a spoiled company. They shouldn't quit. They should lobby and go out and sell the best herrings on the market !!! Smoked herring is m'aiyn olam habah....

10

 Apr 14, 2010 at 08:57 PM Anonymous Says:

I would not eat anything that came from China. You can't trust the Chinese. I thought Mediterranean sardines were supposed to be the best.

11

 Apr 14, 2010 at 09:03 PM Anonymous Says:

Reply to #9  
Anonymous Says:

I enjoy smoked herrings every Shabbos and Yom Tov ! I eat the Canadian Herrings. Pure cold ocean waters of Canada produce the best herrings and sardines. I also eat the Season Morrocan sardines on Pesach because only they are OUP. That's life. Bumble Bee is a spoiled company. They shouldn't quit. They should lobby and go out and sell the best herrings on the market !!! Smoked herring is m'aiyn olam habah....

I buy King of the sea, smoked sardine. Truly deliciuos

12

 Apr 14, 2010 at 11:03 PM Anonymous Says:

Reply to #5  
Anonymous Says:

"Bumble Bee Foods LLC — which has owned the facility since 2004 — announced in February that the plant would close because of steep cuts in the amount of herring fishermen are allowed to catch in the Northeast"

The environmentalist succeeded in closing another USA company. Just keep voting liberals into office!

Sarah Palin we need you!

You want there to be no herring at all in 10 years? The cuts are because fish only reproduce at a certain rate.

13

 Apr 15, 2010 at 01:51 AM Reality check Says:

A very lage part of problem is the idiots in Washington. As ICE continues to raid food producing facilities (a dirty job that most Americans would do any price) in order to arrest hundreds of non-violent, law abiding (except for immigration) aliens trying to feed their families. Food production becomes more expensive or moves out of the country in order to be more cost effective. You would think that someone in Homeland security of which ICE is a part, would realize that a country that does not control it's own food supply is not on very solid footing. But instead, liberals with excrement for brains listen to the environmentalists, the animal right's activists, the anti-pollution activists, and ship these jobs over seas where they are competitive because they don't have to comply with environmental, pollution, animal rights, child labor, worker safety, or any other such issue, all at the expenses of endangering our country's food supply.
Wake up America before it's too late. There used to 200 farms for every USDA employee in Lincoiln's time. There are now 2500 USDA employees for every one farm. Plant a vegatable garden and a few apple trees in your back yard, just in case.

14

 Apr 15, 2010 at 12:49 PM Anonymous Says:

Bumble Bee makes sardines in their Blacks Harbour, NB plant which will not close down anytime soon. Besides Canada and Morocco, there are also sardines from Portugal under OU supervision available in the market. King Oscar sardines are from Poland, also OU certified.

15

 Apr 16, 2010 at 01:32 PM Anonymous Says:

I love fish. Of course, not the bottom feeders which are not kosher, but tuna, salmon, white fish, carp and sardines. If you look at groups of people who have a reputation for intelligence, one common denominator seems to be that they are big fish eaters. Something to think about...

16

 Apr 19, 2010 at 05:02 PM Anonymous Says:

40 years ago packing sardines was my summer job as a teenager on the coast of Maine at a long ago closed plant. My mother made me strip down in the back hall when I came home from work. It was a tough and eye opening summer. I rarely met the "minimum", but these women with strong backs had speed and dexterity; their livelihoods depended on it. I hope job training is provided, allbeit tough to begin a new career at this age when this is all you've know. Good luck to all these employees.

17

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