GOULDSBORO, Maine — A state Rapid Response Team could be on-site as early as next week to begin the process of assisting workers who will be idled when the Bumble Bee Foods cannery closes in two months.
Officials from the Maine Department of Labor are working with company officials to get the process started, according to department spokesman Adam Fisher.
“We’re shooting for next week,” Fisher said Thursday. “We’re looking to start the conversation with workers about their next steps.”
Bumble Bee announced on Wednesday that it plans to close the plant on April 18, ending a century-old tradition in the community and in the country. The former Stinson Seafood plant is the last sardine cannery in the United States. An estimated 128 people are expected to lose their jobs when the facility is shuttered.
Gov. John Baldacci has promised the workers that the state Departments of Labor and Economic and Community Development will work with the company, the town and the workers.
“Our priority is to work with the workers to help them transition to a new job,” the governor said in a statement issued Wednesday. “But we will also actively pursue new uses for the facility and redevelopment. During the next two months, we will do everything we can to put people back to work and find a new use for the plant.”
The availability of a trained work force can be a key factor in drawing new users to an area, Fisher said. The department often can create training programs to provide workers with a new set of skills to meet the needs of a business interested in redeveloping a facility.
Fisher said the two-month notice would give the state time to find ways to best help workers affected by the shutdown.
“We’re fortunate in one respect in that we have time to talk with the workers and get some idea of what their needs are so we can develop a plan to help them,” he said.
The Rapid Response Team initially will work with employees on filing for unemployment, according to Fisher, who said the team also will familiarize workers with the department’s career services and determine what, if any, educational opportunities the workers may need or want.
“There are a lot of different jobs at this plant,” he said. “We’re going to look at the skills that these workers have and determine how we can match them with employers in the area.”
Reflecting seasonal trends, unemployment in Hancock County is higher than the state average of 8.3 percent, running about 10.2 percent based on December figures. Still, there are opportunities for employment, he said.
“There are some jobs in the region,” Fisher said.
Bumble Bee also has notified workers that the company may have other positions available at plants in California, Puerto Rico and New Jersey.
The closure of the Bumble Bee sardine cannery in Prospect Harbor is due to pending new fishing limits that will drastically cut the herring catch in Maine and much of the East Coast, Bumble Bee officials said Thursday.
The federal government is poised to impose a new quota for the next three years that will reduce the total allowable catch of Atlantic herring by 37 percent. For the stretch of the New England coast from Cape Cod to the Canadian border, the catch will be reduced by more than 50 percent.
“It’s just not giving us the fish we need to keep the plant viable,” said Melody Kimmel, spokeswoman for Bumble Bee, which announced the closure on Wednesday.
The National Marine Fisheries Service is expected to implement the new limits soon, reducing the total allowable catch from 145,000 metric tons a year to 91,250 metric tons a year for 2010, 2011 and 2012.
Along the coast, though, where most herring fishing is done so boats can save fuel, the catch will be reduced from 45,000 metric tons to 22,000 metric tons.
Rules will limit the number of fishing days for different sectors throughout the year. The federal government will stop fishing once the yearly catch reaches 95 percent of the limit.
Catch limits for the silvery little fish have been the subject of a political tug of war involving numerous groups including fishermen, the lobster industry, conservationists, tuna fishermen, sport fishermen and whale-watching companies.
Herring are controversial because they play a critical role in the ecosystem as well as the economy.
They are forage food for numerous fish, mammal and bird species. They are also the primary bait for Maine’s lobster industry.
The cannery is just the first of many casualties of the new limits, said David Cousens, president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.
The amount of herring Maine lobstermen typically use for bait each year exceeds the new quota. As result, lobstermen will have to switch to other bait, such as menhaden, and have bait trucked in from farther away.
The result will be higher costs for an industry that has been struggling with low lobster prices, Cousens said.
“It could be disastrous for the lobster industry if we don’t get bait from other sources,” he said.
The New England Fishery Management Council and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission have both voted to recommend adopting the new fishing limits based on scientific analysis of the health of the fish stocks.
It isn’t that the data indicate herring stocks are being overfished, said Lori Steele, who works on herring issues for the New England Fishery Management Council.
Rather, computer models used by scientists to predict the health of herring stocks have been unreliable, leaving scientists uncertain how healthy the stocks are. As a result, she said, scientists are taking a cautious approach when recommending catch limits, she said.
The uncertainty is due to the lack of funding for data-gathering efforts, such as trawl surveys, said Don Perkins of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.
“It creates an environment where the politics gets intense,” he said. “Everybody can argue their side of the story because there is no definite data.”
The next stock assessment is scheduled to occur in fall 2011 or spring 2012.
Steve Weiner, an Ogunquit tuna fisherman who is president of CHOIR, a coalition group that has worked to protect herring stocks from overfishing, said that making fishery management decisions based on science is a positive development. But the science needs to improve so stocks can be managed without devastating coastal communities.
“There can’t be anyone who thinks what happened to that cannery isn’t tragic,” he said. “These are tough times as it is right now. There can’t be any more of this.”
Portland Press Herald writer Tom Bell contributed to this report.