Workers at the Stinson sardine cannery in the village of Prospect Harbor are used to things moving quickly.
Early each morning, while most Mainers are still asleep, whole herring start gliding up and down conveyor belts dripping with sea water in the oceanfront plant’s cutting room, beginning the ever-moving process by which the fish are sorted, sliced, sorted again, packed into tins, steamed, flavored, sealed, then cooked, much of it before noon. By sometime after 3 p.m. or so each day, the plant’s 128 workers on average have cranked out, boxed and stacked 12,000 tins ready for shipment.
Over the course of a busy 10-hour day, that works out to one ready-for-market tin of sardines every three seconds. In 2009, the plant produced 3 million cans of the fish.
This week, workers maintained that pace of production despite the very big distraction of the plant’s permanent closure next week. Thursday, when the plant produces its last case of the canned, omega-3 fatty acid-rich fish, will mark the end of the sardine canning industry in the United States.
The Prospect Harbor plant has been the last dedicated sardine cannery in the country since 2005, when another Stinson cannery closed in Bath.
There are still efforts being made to find a new use for the plant, though maybe not as quickly as anxious cannery workers would like. Since February, when the plant’s pending closure was announced, state officials have been working intensely with Bumble Bee Foods LLC, the plant’s owner, to find a new owner that will put the facility to a similar use — and employ a similar number of workers.
Because of reductions in federal catch quotas for herring, which Bumble Bee has cited as the main reason it is closing the plant, officials at all levels have said that maintaining it as a sardine cannery just isn’t feasible.
State officials and Bumble Bee have said that there have been serious inquiries from other seafood processors about acquiring the plant. Lobster, which represents the dominant fishery in Maine, most likely would be the main type of seafood processed at the plant if a new owner can be found.
Melody Kimmel, spokeswoman for Bumble Bee, said Thursday that the company still is working with Gov. John Baldacci’s office to line up a new owner. Who the interested parties might be has not been revealed.
“It’s a top priority,” she said. “As soon as there’s something to announce, we will do so.”
Despite the uncertainty Thursday, several cannery employees said they were still hopeful that another company will take over the plant and start it back up sometime later this summer.
Gerald Humphries Sr. of Prospect Harbor, who has worked on the plant’s sealing line for about a year, said the plant’s importance to the regional economy is too great to not try to keep it going somehow.
“Hopefully, something happens for the people that live around here,” said Humphries, who has a 3-year-old son to support. “If you’ve done nothing else for 30 years, what are you going to do?”
Humphries and Robert Hill, another sealing line worker with young children to house and feed, said they’ve talked to friends who fish for a living about getting work, but the fishing industry isn’t doing well either. Aside from fishing and the cannery, there aren’t many jobs to be had around the Schoodic Peninsula, they said.
“This is a major hit to the people around here,” Humphries said. “All you can do is hope for the best.”
For Lela Anderson, 78, a packing line worker, the cannery is the only place she has worked since she was in her 20s. The Corea resident has worked at the plant for 54 years.
Anderson said Thursday she still enjoys the work, despite the many changes she has seen at the plant, including a fire that burned it to the ground in 1968. She used to cut the heads and tails off the fish with scissors as part of her job, but now just makes sure the pre-cut pieces of fish fit snugly into the tins that move steadily past her work station.
Anderson said that if a new owner can be found, she probably will apply for a job instead of opting for retirement.
“I enjoy the company of the people. I enjoy working,” Anderson said. “I don’t like to sit idle. I’ll probably try [to keep working], though my children might not think much of that idea.”
Peter Colson, the plant’s manager, grew up in the sardine business. His father used to manage a Stinson plant in nearby Southwest Harbor before it closed in the 1980s.
Colson said Thursday that, to him, the people who work at the Prospect Harbor plant are the most important part of the operation. He said that despite the uncertainty surrounding the pending closure, and the pain of seeing the American sardine industry vanish, all the employees have stayed focused on their work.
“My thoughts are with them,” Colson said. “A lot of the ladies down there have been at it longer than I have. That’s the part I’m going to miss the most.”
Colson said change can’t always be prevented, but disputed the fact that declining domestic consumption of sardines was part of the problem. That claim, he said, is a falsehood. Most of the plant’s sardines are sold in the United States, he said.
“Our sales are up,” Colson said. “The product is going out faster than we can pack it.”
As the plant’s final day draws near, reporters and archivists, including the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport, have been looking to document the final days of the plant, according to plant officials. A story about the cannery appeared last Sunday in The New York Times while CNN, the BBC and National Public Radio have inquired about doing stories.
Despite the presence Thursday of a handful of reporters and photographers hovering around them, plant workers continued to do what many of them have done for decades.
Wearing earplugs, hairnets and rubber boots, they made sure herring flowed smoothly into automated cutting machines, and they fed empty tins into chutes that carried them through a floor into a downstairs packing room. Anderson and about 19 other women then filled the tins by hand before the tins were stacked on trays and, prior to being sealed, were steamed, then dried out.
From there, the cans were placed on another conveyor belt that carried them under a steady stream of mustard sauce and through sealing machines. The tins then were cooked in large steamers, left to dry, and packed into boxes and stacked on pallets.
During a mid-morning break from her duties on the sealing line, cannery worker Barbara Haycock said she has worked at the plant for nearly nine years. She said she wants the cannery to get a new owner and signature seafood product, not just so she can keep her job but to help preserve a way of life that has existed in the area for more than 100 years. She said she lives right down the road from the plant.
“That’s one of the reasons I’m real hopeful,” Haycock said.