PORTLAND, Maine — The billboard-sized aluminum fisherman standing outside what was the last full-time sardine cannery in the U.S. no longer holds an oversized tin of Beach Cliff sardines.
The hulking fisherman is now grasping an old-fashioned wooden lobster trap in his arms. The iconic sign, tall as a utility pole, has been repainted as the plant prepares to make the jump from processing sardines to processing lobsters.
Nearly 15 months after the sprawling Stinson Seafood factory in the eastern Maine town of Gouldsboro shut its doors, the plant is coming back to life.
About 20 employees are now working there, buying lobsters from a handful of fishermen and selling them bait, said Antonio Bussone, president of Live Lobster Co. Inc., which owns the plant. By the end of July or in early August, workers should be processing frozen lobster tails and frozen and fresh lobster meat for sale to restaurants, stores and distributors around the country.
Bussone expects to have 50 to 60 workers on his payroll this year and to process 1.5 million to 2 million pounds of lobster. The products will probably be branded under the Prospect Harbor Foods label, named for the village where the plant is located. The plant operates under the name Lobster Web Co.
Maine lobstermen last year caught a record 94.7 million pounds, and industry officials want to process more of those lobsters in Maine instead of sending them to processing plants north of the border.
“We need to take control of the industry and take control of processing in Maine,” Bussone said. “To send 50 or 60 million pounds of lobsters to Canada each year is not the way to preserve the resource or jobs in Maine.”
When Bumble Bee LLC closed the plant in April 2010, it cost 130 people their jobs and marked the end Maine’s long sardine-processing era. For 135 years, sardine canneries were a vital part of the state’s coastal communities, employing thousands of workers who put out billions of sardine tins over the years.
It has been estimated that more than 400 canneries came and went in Maine. Output peaked at 384 million cans in 1950, but production then declined and plants went by the wayside.
Live Lobster, which is based in Chelsea, Mass., completed its purchase of the Stinson plant in January. The reopening has been slow in coming and the plant is still awaiting arrival of holding tanks and freezing and processing equipment.
Selectmen say they are cautiously optimistic about the prospects for success, but they’re also leery.
Part of the wariness comes from frictions that arose between selectmen and the company when the town applied on behalf of Live Lobster for $400,000 in low-interest loan and grant money from the federal government’s Community Development Block Grant program for the purchase of lobster-processing equipment.
The money has been approved, but selectmen say the company was slow to come up with paperwork they wanted to protect the town from financial liability. The town and the state were working on the wording of the loan and grant agreements to ensure the town isn’t on the hook if the venture fails.
Selectman James Watson said he’s hopeful the plant will prosper and bring much-needed jobs to the region. But he has doubts.
“I think anything of this size warrants a little bit of skepticism,” he said. “It’s a big undertaking and something that’s never been done in the state on this level.”
George Gervais, commissioner of the Department of Economic and community Development, said he’s pleased to see new jobs being created, some of which have been filled by former sardine cannery workers.
“It’s been a long time coming since Bumble Bee closed,” Gervais said. “I’m very happy to see this come to the point where it’s at now.”
Bussone said it takes time to get a large-and-complex operation off the ground. The 320,000-square-foot plant will be used to sell bait, buy and ship live lobsters, and process lobsters.
In time, he hopes to process crab and shrimp, as well.
In the next four or five years, he hopes to have 100 to 120 employs and be processing about 6 million pounds of lobster each year.
In the meantime, townspeople are adjusting to seeing the fisherman sign holding a lobster trap rather than a can of sardines. Watson said he’s always called the sign simply the “sardine man.”
He’s not sure what he’ll call it now. “Success, I hope,” he said.