GOULDSBORO, Maine — “Not much longer.”
Donna Eklund spoke those words around midday Thursday, knowing that in another few hours the last can of sardines produced in the United States would be sealed and cooked at the plant where she has worked for more than 20 years.
She came to work at the Stinson Seafood cannery in Prospect Harbor early that morning knowing that by the end of the day, she would start dismantling the fish cutting machines that helped the 104-year cannery crank out 30 million cans of sardines last year. The equipment is being moved to Blacks Harbour, New Brunswick, where cannery owner Bumble Bee Foods LLC plans to continue producing Beech Cliff brand sardines.
During her lunch hour on Thursday, Eklund, 40, of Steuben, talked to reporters outside the plant about the mood inside. She said that her fellow employees, all 127 of whom will be unemployed come Monday morning, were trying to stay upbeat. One of them, she said, came to work Thursday morning wearing a rainbow-colored wig.
“Overall, I think we’re doing pretty good today,” Eklund said, wearing a hairnet and bright yellow waterproof overalls while standing in front of the plant’s iconic, 30-foot-tall fisherman sign. “Yes, some of us are down and out. I think coming to the very last minute, that’s when it will hit everyone in the face and we’ll say, ‘There it is.’”
Thursday evening, Eklund said she heard on the news after work that a potential, unnamed buyer might acquire the plant by mid-May and have the plant renovated and operating again by the beginning of August.
“It would be nice if they could do it,” she said.
Eklund, a trained forklift driver who also has work experience as a certified nursing assistant, said she wasn’t sure if she could wait until August to resume work at the plant.
She said that she wants to learn more about who the new owner might be and that she will at least consider trying to find a job elsewhere before August.
“Bills will start to pile up and money won’t be coming in,” Eklund said. “It depends if anything better comes along.”
In between shifts during the workday Thursday, other cannery employees took pictures of each other in front of the plant posing in front of the towering aluminum fisherman sign on which is painted a giant can of Beech Cliff sardines.
Gerald Humphries, 27, and his 3-year-old son, Gerald Jr., stood in front of the sign while Humphries’ girlfriend, Amanda Pickering, took their photograph.
Humphries, who has worked at the plant for about a year, said walking out of the plant for the final time that afternoon would be hard.
A New York native, Humphries said he plans to move to Connecticut so he can attend mortuary school this fall. The former landscaper said he wants to learn a skill that isn’t dependent on the seasons or likely to result in his being laid off again.
“The people here are all like family,” Humphries said. “It’s like a home. When you get here, you want to stay.”
When Bumble Bee announced in February that it was closing the plant, it blamed its decision on federal reductions in catch limits for herring, which are known as sardines after they are cooked and canned.
With the reduced supply, which has shrunk from 180,00 metric tons in 2004 to 91,000 metric tons this year, Bumble Bee cannot get enough herring to keep the sardine operation viable, the company has said.
The plant has been a fixture in the local village of Prospect Harbor since Edward T. Russell founded it in 1906, according to a written history of the facility that plant officials gave to workers last week. The Stinson family owned it from 1926 until 2000, when Connors Bros. of Blacks Harbour, New Brunswick, purchased it. Bumble Bee inherited the facility when it acquired Connors Bros. in 2004, a year before the second-to-last sardine cannery closed in Bath.
Karin McLean, co-owner of Mc’s Market in the neighboring village of Birch Harbor, said Thursday that the store gets business from cannery employees who stop in for a sandwich at lunch or who buy some groceries on their way home after work.
She said she expects the market’s business to drop off on Monday, until at least the summer tourist season gets under way. She said the store has experienced declines in business before, when the former Navy base at Schoodic Point closed in 2002 and when the nearby Ocean Wood Campground closed permanently at the end of last summer.
“We hate to see it close,” Mclean said of the plant. “People have been talking about it the past couple of weeks. They’re pretty emotional and upset about it.”
Dana Rice, Gouldsboro’s first selectman, said Thursday that it was hard to accept that the sardine plant was shutting down. Before now, it had weathered two world wars, the Great Depression and other economic downturns, he said.
“It survived everything,” Rice said. “It’s been there so long, it’s been taken for granted. It’s a sad day in a lot of ways.”
Rice, a local lobster dealer and a former member of the New England Fishery Management Council, predicted that the catch limit on herring would increase in a few years. When it does, he said, it will be too bad that there will no longer be any way to process the fish in Maine.
“I don’t think most of us are grasping the economic impact [of losing the cannery],” Rice said. “We’re losing the economic benefit of a natural resource that is ours.”
As for the prospects of a new owner coming along and producing a new type of seafood, the selectman said it would be good to restore as many jobs at the plant as possible. Officials have said that they are hoping whoever takes the facility over will be able to employ as many as 100 people.
“We’re ready to work with whoever goes in there and to assist them in any way we can,” Rice said.
In the plant’s final act of operations, cans that were packed, sealed and cooked on Thursday are to be packaged today for shipping. After they are steam-cooked, the cans have to dry and cool off for several hours before they can be boxed and stacked for shipping. The cannery will close permanently when packaging ends today.
According to cannery employees, the final cans of sardines that were being sealed on Thursday are Beech Cliff fish steaks flavored with Louisiana hot sauce.