SEARSPORT, Maine — The sardine industry in Maine has passed into history.
Someday, someone may figure out a way to make the business of catching herring and canning them as sardines profitable here again. But by all available evidence, it’s over.
That sentiment is what prompted the Peacock family to donate business records and photographs from the R.J. Peacock Canning Co. to the Penobscot Marine Museum, said Cipperly Good, the museum’s collections manager.
Robert and Jeanne Peacock contacted the museum in the fall, Good said, to offer the donation. The company operated for most of the early 20th century through the 1990s.
“It’s sort of the end of the era for sardine canneries,” she said Wednesday, after spreading out the contents of folders holding newspaper clippings, stock certificates, IRS filings, annual reports, photographs and memorabilia onto a table in the museum’s library.
“They wanted to give us the record to preserve the history,” Good said. The museum hopes to use some of the material in its permanent exhibit, “Gone Fishing.”
The Peacock family operated canneries in Eastport, Lubec and Portland. It wasn’t that long ago that those and other coastal Maine towns churned out thousands of cans of sardines.
“We don’t eat sardines anymore,” Good observed. More recently, the fish were mostly used for cat food and lobster bait.
Those in the industry blame overly rigorous government regulations for the demise, while others say the species were overharvested, especially when boats would employ spotter planes allowing the vessels to scoop up herring by the ton.
Among the documents in the collection is a 1952 publication reporting on the herring catch in Maine in 1948 and 1949, compiled in part by the state Department of Sea and Shore Fisheries.
The report lists the various sectors of the coast, including the Sullivan and Flanders Bay area: “During 1949, one weir at Waukeag Neck was abandoned, and seven new weirs were put into operation.”
Weirs are stationary nets that hang in a semicircle from makeshift posts near the shore into which the schools of herring would swim.
It also notes that “weir men caught 7.9 percent of the total production of 172,434.5 bushels, and the top two seiners took the remainder.”
Seiners are boats that used a pocket-like net.
An April 1962 newspaper clipping, which may have been from the Bangor Daily News, had the headline, “Sardines Found Good For Blood,” which included a quote from Carroll B. Peacock, the company head, hailing the findings “as a significant development for the state’s big sardine industry.”
Yet another publication, dated 1952, is a collection of sardine recipes with such dubious delicacies as Maine Sardine and Corn Fritters, Maine Sardine Deviled Eggs and Baked Maine Sardines in Buns. The booklet was distributed nationally, a press release with it noted, “in an effort to win new friends for, and increase consumption of Maine sardines.”
Eventually, the photographs will be digitally saved in the museum collection. The collection can be reviewed by researchers by contacting Good at 548-2529, ext. 212 or emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org.