An official at the herring processing plant in Gouldsboro said Friday that company officials are concerned about what reduced herring quotas might mean for the plant’s future, but said rumors that the firm’s parent company has decided to close the plant are not true.
Al West, fish buyer for the Stinson Seafood cannery, said there have been internal discussions about what effect the reduced catch limits for herring might have on the sardine factory, which employs approximately 130 people. But he said there has not been any decision to shut its doors.
“We’re coming up with a business plan for how we might work through this,” West said Friday.
Last month, regulators with the New England Fishery Management Council voted in favor of reducing the annual catch limit for herring in U.S. waters for the next three years.
The yearly limit for all American fishing zones was 106,000 metric tons, down from this year’s overall limit of 194,000 metric tons. Boats fishing in the inner Gulf of Maine will be limited to 26,500 metric tons of the overall catch quota. That is nearly 17,000 metric tons fewer than the 43,150 metric tons that fishermen could catch in that area in 2009.
West declined to comment on what options the plant is considering as a way to deal with the reduced supply of herring.
“We’ve had numerous discussions about this,” he said. “At this stage that’s all I should say.”
Bumble Bee Foods, the San Diego-based owner of the cannery, did not respond to a request Friday for comment about the reduced federal limits on herring fishing.
In 2008, herring accounted for more than a quarter of the volume of all marine species commercially harvested in Maine and only 2 percent of the overall monetary value of the state’s marine fisheries. But herring is the bait of choice for the state’s lobster industry, which last year brought more than $244 million worth of lobster ashore in Maine. According to lobster industry officials, 60,000 pounds of herring typically is used each year in Maine as lobster bait.
Gouldsboro’s sardine plant, on the waterfront in the village of Prospect Harbor, is the last of its kind in the U.S. About a century ago, there were as many as 75 canneries in roughly three dozen towns along the Maine coast, with thousands of workers producing hundreds of millions of cans each year. By earlier this decade, how-ever, the number left in the state had been reduced to only a handful. The local cannery has been the only one left for the past five years.
Dana Rice, a Gouldsboro selectman and until recently an appointed member of New England Fishery Management Council, said Friday that the herring issue is very important for the town, both for the cannery and for the area’s lobster fishermen. He said locals have been worried ever since the likelihood of lower herring limits became apparent this past summer.
“I’m very concerned,” Rice said. “I’m more concerned about the cannery closing down than I was when the [Navy] base closed.”
In 1999, when the Navy decided to shut down its nearby base at Schoodic Point, it employed about 140 nonmilitary personnel who lived in the area. Rice said that many of those civilian jobs required skills that could be applied more easily to positions elsewhere, and that the economy was better then than it is now. The base closed down in 2002.
“It’s the last thing we’ve got in town, aside from the fishing industry,” Rice said of the plant. “It would be a big blow, no question.”
Rice said the herring limit reduction is frustrating because there is no indication that herring are being overfished. He said the management council endorsed a reduction in the herring quota because the current model, or assessment method, for estimating the herring population in the northwest Atlantic has too many unknowns. The council’s science and statistical committee has endorsed the lower quotas in order to account for the uncertainty in the most recent stock assessment, he said.
“We need a better model,” Rice said. “What we need is better science.”
But John Crawford, a scientist with Pew Environment Group, said the model is not the issue. Crawford on Friday agreed that the model is “not perfect,” but said the bigger issue is the lack of scientific data to go into the model. That is why Pew, which supports the reduced quota, also has been encouraging regulators to require better monitoring at sea of the herring fishery, he said.
“There’s a saying: Garbage in, garbage out,” Crawford said.
Crawford agreed with Rice that there is no indication that herring are being overfished but said it has happened before and could happen again. The reason all but one of Maine’s sardine canneries have gone under, he said, was overzealous fishing efforts.
“They’re almost all gone because this resource was overexploited in the past,” Crawford said.
Crawford said that although the overall quota is lower than it has been, it is not far off the mark of the amount of what fishing boats have actually caught in recent years. He acknowledged there likely will be some short-term discomfort with the lower quota but said it will be outweighed by the long-term benefit to the herring population.
According to previous reports in the Bangor Daily News, when Bumble Bee acquired the plant in 2001, the company signed an agreement with the state to keep the plant running for 10 years and to produce annually a minimum of 575,000 cases of sardines, each case of which contains 100 cans.
The company failed to meet the minimum and renegotiated the minimum to 500,000 cases, extending the agreement by two years. It failed again, and negotiated a third time.
Under a revised agreement in 2005, Bumble Bee is supposed to produce 450,000 cases a year in Gouldsboro and keep the plant open until at least 2013.