When the final sardine is processed today at the Stinson Seafood cannery in Prospect Harbor, it will represent more than the loss of another business to the fragile economy. It will represent more than the latest local company folding under technological advancements or outsourcing.
The Stinson closure this week will mark the death of a U.S. industry that has been struggling for decades. It is the end of an era for Maine’s coastal communities.
Parent company Bumble Bee Foods’ announcement in February that the Hancock County cannery would close sent ripples throughout the communities that have embraced the fish-processing facility as a local landmark. Mostly, the pending closure sparked nervousness about the economic and emotional impact that 130 layoffs will have on an already economically and emotionally distressed area.
“Really, I’ve been expecting this, although the demise of the industry has been painfully slow,” said Ronnie Peabody, who operates the Maine Coast Sardine History Museum in Jonesport. “But it’s hard to think that soon there will be no such thing as a Maine sardine anymore. The industry is no longer dying; it’s dead.”
Even if the Stinson Seafood plant finds a new economic purpose, as many are hoping, sardines will not be part of it. It’s a sad chapter for many, but in many ways the demise of the industry simply represents change and the inevitable inertia of life.
Once a staple in lunch boxes of blue-collar workers, sardine cans now collect dust in pantries and cupboards — the last resort in a power outage, perhaps. Once a labor-intensive industry, sardine processing has become mostly automated, and the jobs that remain are not attractive ones. Once plentiful and unregulated, the supply of herring (unprocessed sardines) has been diminished by federal limitations and overfishing.
“It’s hard to say what’s to blame,” Peabody said. “There is a lot of blame out there. I think it was just a perfect storm.”
For most, change is neither good nor bad. It’s just change. For 78-year-old Lela Anderson, the plant’s closure will force her to retire from the only job she’s ever known.
“In a way it wasn’t a surprise, but in a way it was,” she said recently from her home. “At least I’ll have more time with family.”
A Changing Industry
The United States’ sardine industry began in Eastport in the late 1800s. Since then, more than 400 sardine factories have opened and closed along Maine’s coast.
“Way back when I was growing up, they had plants all over Down East,” said Beatrice Buckley, 77, who worked in the Stinson Seafood office for 16 years and has lived on the Schoodic Peninsula her entire life.
“We shipped to practically every state. There were warehouses everywhere.”
At one time in the early 1950s, sardines were the largest economic industry in the state, supporting nearly 6,000 jobs, according to Peabody.
“That’s still hard for me to believe,” he said. “For so many years, it was the financial backbone for the coast.”
Like many coastal Mainers of a certain age, Peabody grew up on sardines. He remembers accompanying his father to local canneries to buy bait. Later in life, he and his wife, Mary, began collecting sardine-related artifacts. In 2001, they opened their history museum. It was still living history then.
From World War II through the 1990s, canneries steadily began to close. In 1999, Connors Bros. Ltd. of New Brunswick bought Stinson Seafood canneries in Bath, Belfast, Prospect Harbor and Lubec. Belfast and Lubec closed within a few years, followed by Bath in 2005.
Peabody said Connor Bros. and its sister company, Bumble Bee Foods, finished off the industry here.
“They bought factories and closed them,” he said. “They wanted a monopoly. Now they have it.”
Robert Peacock of Eastport also grew up on sardines and even owned five sardine factories at one time. They have all closed. He has shifted instead to sea urchin and sea cucumber processing.
Peacock said federal and state policies have made it virtually impossible to manufacture anything in Maine anymore.
“From the time I was a teenager on, any manufacturing has been decimated. It’s not a lack of fish or a lack or market,” he said. “If you want to see what can happen, go to [Connor Bros’ plant in] Blacks Harbour [New Brunswick].”
Peabody said that it’s cheaper and less regulatory to do business in Canada, but that the same could be said of dozens of other industries.
Cannery officials also have blamed the industry’s death on federal reductions in the catch limit for Atlantic herring. The change was to combat overfishing, but some felt the restrictions went too far.
The reasons are irrelevant now.
“They did overfish, but not to the point where all these factories had to close,” Peabody said. “I think it will always be something that people feel bad about.”
A Changing Work Force
Lela Anderson first went to Stinson Seafood in Prospect Harbor looking for work in the summer of 1956. In those days, women often did the assembly line packing because of their small, nimble hands.
Anderson could look for another job but she doubts she will.
“I think my age will be against me,” she said.
Few employees can claim five decades of work like Anderson, but the sardine industry work force is old.
Peabody said once World War II ended, soldiers came home and didn’t want to work in sardine factories. And women became housewives again.
“These young people wanted better jobs; they didn’t want to do this work anymore,” he said. “I don’t want to offend anyone, but that work never required an education. Even kids used to work there.”
When Buckley was in high school, the work was done all by hand. Then technology came and fewer jobs were needed.
Anderson said she originally used a pair of scissors to cut the heads and tails off herring in one fluid motion. When the technology changed, she adapted, but many moved on.
Also after World War II, import tariffs were lifted, which coincided with the rise of canned tuna fish. Tuna could be machine-packed, so it cost less to process and eventually overtook canned sardines in popularity as a lunchbox item.
Sandy Oliver, a food historian who lives on Islesboro, said the mild flavor of tuna fish and the way it was marketed to the masses was a body blow to the sardine industry.
“Marketing matters,” she said. “What tuna fish producers did in the 1950s and 1960s was remarkable.”
Sardines may no longer be produced in Maine or the U.S., but Peabody and others hope the industry is not forgotten.
Linda Godfrey of Eastport has learned a lot about sardines recently. She and her husband are redeveloping the former Seacoast Canning Co. building at 15 Sea St. into a hotel and conference center.
“I haven’t seen the whole picture, but looking at the history and the photographs, it was an incredible industry,” she said. “Could anything have been done to stop this? Was this inevitable? I don’t know.”
The sardine industry in Maine mirrored the tastes and demands of the time. In the 1940s and 1950s, the little tin cans had regular places in lunch pails and pantries. And the last generation of sardine consumers may die with the Baby Boomers.
Godfrey said that sardines are not high on her list of foods.
“They are still popular with some of the older people. They have their own recipes,” she said.
Buckley still remembers the prevalence of sardines in her home.
“The older people used to eat sardines,” she said. “I know we always had cans of sardines in the house. They didn’t cost much money.”
Sardines still don’t cost much, but most grocery shoppers likely walk right by, on their way to picking up a can of tuna fish perhaps.
Oliver said the evolution of the sardine would surprise most.
It used to be a luxury item in the mid- to late-1800s, much the way lobster is today. Interestingly, lobster was pauper’s food then.
“Manufacturers developed these little dishes for sardines and little forks that came with them,” Oliver said.
Before Prohibition, she said, sardines and crackers were set out in bars and pubs. They have been replaced by popcorn and mixed nuts.
Lost amid all the reasons for the demise of the sardine industry in Maine is the reality that tastes have changed.
One of the problems with sardines, Oliver said, is that it’s an already oily fish packed in oil. It also has a strong flavor that doesn’t appeal to the widest audience.
Godfrey remembers a story several years ago when her young nephew visited from Texas. He spent time with a fishery family that sold sardines but had never tried one before.
“He thought they were marvelous,” he said. “When he went back to school in Texas, there was a show-and-tell day and he wanted us to send some sardines. … Let’s just say they didn’t go over well there.”