GOULDSBORO, Maine — As federal officials met Tuesday with the head of the company that owns the local sardine cannery, state officials were considering whether a consent decree might be able to keep the plant operating beyond mid-April.
Local, state and federal officials have said they hope to find another owner for the plant, which employs 128 people and is the last remaining sardine cannery in the United States. Officials with Bumble Bee Foods, which has owned the cannery since 2004, said last month that federal reductions in the catch limit for Atlantic herring — as sardines are known before they are processed — have doomed the plant’s future as a sardine cannery. The lower catch limit will prevent the cannery from processing enough sardines to make it profitable, company officials have said, prompting their decision to close the cannery by April 18.
Herring not only is canned as sardines, but also is the bait of choice for thousands of lobstermen who fish along Maine’s coast. For many coastal towns and offshore islands, Maine’s $220 million lobster fishery is the only reliable way most residents have to make a living.
The decision to reduce the catch limit for herring was made last fall by the New England Fishery Management Council. The reason the council decided to reduce the overall quota for Atlantic herring from 194,000 metric tons to 106,000 metric tons was a high degree of uncertainty in the most recent herring stock assessment, officials have said.
Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, who each met individually with Bumble Bee CEO Chris Lischewski on Tuesday in Washington, D.C., have called upon federal regulators to gather more comprehensive scientific data on herring. The importance of herring and other fisheries to Maine’s coastal communities is too great to let unknowns play such a prominent role in setting catch limits, they have said.
“Ultimately, this is yet another example of how fisheries management impacts entire coastal communities, not just those making a living on the water,” Snowe said recently about the cannery’s announced closure. “I have long sounded the call for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to make a greater financial commitment to strengthening its fisheries science and reducing the uncertainty that leads to decisions like this one.”
In a statement issued after her meeting Tuesday, Snowe said she told Lischewski that she was disappointed by the decision to close the plant. She said Lischewski had told her last September that any reduction in the herring catch limit would not affect the Prospect Harbor cannery.
Snowe and Collins each indicated Tuesday that Lischewski has pledged to work with the congressional delegation and Gov. John Baldacci to find a buyer or partner who will restart the plant as some sort of seafood processor after the sardine operation is shut down. Officials say there is a chance that about 100 of the jobs at the plant might be preserved by a firm that would buy the cannery or partner with Bumble Bee to process lobster and other marine species.
Along with U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, the senators have indicated that they are working to find a new operator and to make sure the cannery workers have access to federal assistance when the sardine operation shuts down. All four members of Maine’s congressional delegation, including U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, have said that herring and other fishery regulations should be improved to help preserve the ability of Mainers to rely on commercial fishing for their livelihoods.
Many fishing industry officials have said that such a drastic reduction in the herring catch limit is unnecessary because there is no sign that herring are being overfished. Supporters of the reduced limit have said it is necessary in case there are fewer Atlantic herring than recent assessments suggest.
Conservationists and state officials have said that the new overall catch limit is close to the actual amount of herring that has been caught in the Northeast in recent years.
Linda Conti, head of the Maine Attorney General’s Office consumer affairs division, said Tuesday that might be legal grounds to hold Bumble Bee to the terms of a consent decree it inherited from Connor Bros. in 2004. New Brunswick-based Connor Bros., which acquired Stinson Seafood in 2000, was required to sign the consent decree after state regulators became concerned that its acquisition of Stinson Seafood would give it uncompetitive buying power over Maine’s herring market.
Conti said the consent decree is due to expire in December, and the state can do nothing to prevent the company from closing the plant after then.
Even if Bumble Bee’s request for a waiver from the consent decree is granted, the agreement has been effective in keeping the plant going, according to Conti. She said the company has repeatedly made arguments about why it should be released from its obligation to keep the plant going.
“Every other year, they were in here complaining that they couldn’t do it and wanted out,” she said. “[Without the decree] they would have already left.”
Still, Conti said she was somewhat sympathetic with Bumble Bee’s situation.
“I haven’t bought a lot of sardines lately, and I know there isn’t a big market for them anymore in this country,” she said.
Karin McLean, co-owner of Mc’s Market down the road in Birch Harbor, said last week that many cannery workers stop in the market to get sandwiches for lunch or other items. She said the cannery itself has an account at the store for buying fuel or snacks for cannery functions.
“We know everybody who works there,” McLean said. “We’re definitely going to feel the impact here.”
McLean said the market lost business eight years ago when the Navy base at nearby Schoodic Point closed down and lost even more when the Ocean Wood Campground, about a mile away, closed permanently at the end of last summer.
“We still get tourists, but maybe not as many,” McLean said. “Hopefully, something like [a seafood processor] will go in there and not have it idle too long.”
Jennifer Rotz has worked in the cannery’s business office for more than 12 years. She said last week that the news of the plant closing down in April has been hard for employees.
“I’ll miss the people I work with,” Rotz said. “It’s like a family.”