Sardine Era Ends

Posted Feb. 19, 2010, at 6:18 p.m.

The imminent closing of the sardine cannery in Prospect Harbor marks the end of an era in Maine. Like the ends of other dominant industries in Maine, such as shoes, poultry and textiles, the news is partly a failure of policy and partly an inevitability that comes in a changing world.

For the 130 workers who will lose their paychecks, such abstractions are irrelevant. The closure will cut deep into the local economy. Like neighboring Washington County towns, the Hancock County villages east of Mount Desert Island have no hub industry to help cushion the blow. Resource-based businesses, such as lobstering and wood harvesting, will continue, but the vagaries of price for both commodities make for uncertain paychecks.

The region can benefit by encouraging more tourism and second-home and retirement-home development. Yet even in the best of times, those economic drivers will not quickly replace 130 paychecks. Maine’s congressional delegation and state government will work hard to assist former cannery workers, as they have in the wake of other plant closures.

The Prospect Harbor cannery was the last in the country, so its closure is symbolic. At one time, scores of sardine packing plants were strung along the coast. The former cannery in Lubec has been redeveloped into a waterfront hotel, studios and fish market. Yet efforts to redevelop the plant in Belfast as condos and a marina have failed.

Fifty years ago, herring approached the shore, chased by larger fish for whom they were a staple, and were captured in weirs, the crude fencelike contraptions on which nets were hung. Fishing boats also pursued them. In recent years, spotters in airplanes would radio the boats, so entire schools of herring could be scooped up.

It should come as no surprise that federal limits on the herring catch have been reduced from 180,000 metric tons in 2004 to just half that amount this year. But the reduction came after 10 years of industrial-scaled vessels caught 150,000 tons annually. The environmental advocacy group Herring Alliance argues that “catch limits are set sometimes in excess of scientific advice and always based on industry demand for herring rather than through a thorough process of understanding the needs of the ecosystem.”

Herring — called sardines once they are in a can — hold a critical place in the food chain. They are a prime food for whales, seabirds, striped bass, tuna and many other marine predators. The lobster fishery relies on herring for bait. Though elected officials publicly decry the tighter catch limits, clearly the species has been overharvested. It will take years, if not decades, for herring to rebound in New England waters, just as it has for other key species.

Bad policy then is partly to blame for decimating the sardine-packing industry in Maine.

But just as shoe plants have left Maine for other countries, the demise of this industry is probably final. Instead of lamenting and wishing for its return, policymakers should redouble their efforts to rebuild Maine’s economy with jobs tied to 21st century demands.

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