PROSPECT HARBOR, Maine – 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.
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.
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.”
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 from countries with lower labor costs — 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.
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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