GOULDSBORO, Maine — The sardine cannery has been here for more than a century, long enough to ingrain itself deeply into the fabric of the community.
Many residents can recall having worked at the Prospect Harbor plant or a relative who did. A photograph of the large metal sign that stands outside the cannery, which depicts a fisherman holding an oversize can of Beach Cliff sardines, is mounted in the entryway of the town office. The distinctive image is even depicted along with other local sights on a quilt that hangs on a wall of the selectmen’s meeting room.
On Thursday night, selectmen sat in front of that quilt as they discussed the pending closure of the plant. The main question they and a handful of other people at the meeting had about the cannery was simple: Where do we go from here?
Bumble Bee Seafoods, which has owned the former Stinson’s facility since 2004, announced Wednesday that it plans to close it down for good in mid-April. The plant, which is the last sardines-only cannery left in the United States, employs about 130 people, all of whom are expected to lose their jobs.
According to Bumble Bee, reduced federal limits on the allowable catch for herring — as sardines are known before they are canned — prevent the cannery from reaching production levels that can keep it economically viable.
But for residents of Gouldsboro and surrounding towns, the cannery is too important to the area’s economy to simply shut it down and let it gather dust.
“It’s our responsibility to replace these jobs as soon as possible, and if possible,” First Selectman Dana Rice said Thursday at a selectmen’s meeting. “There’s going to have to be something different happening there. We need to explore all the possibilities.”
State and federal elected officials have said they will help as best they can. The likelihood of another sardine company acquiring the plant is nil, officials have said, so efforts will be made to help the displaced workers find other jobs and to see whether there might be another commercial use for the property.
Gov. John Baldacci, state officials and executives with San Diego-based Bumble Bee are expected to be in Prospect Harbor next week to address the issue, state and local officials have said.
Rice, a lobster dealer by trade, suggested Thursday that the site still might have a future in the seafood business. He declined to go into details, but said he has heard serious inquiries about reusing the facility.
Rice acknowledged there are many unknowns and what might happen to the plant is largely up to Bumble Bee, which owns the property. But in a best-case scenario, Rice said, it is remotely possible that operations of some kind could resume at the facility this fall.
“I do know for a fact there are people who are interested,” Rice said during the meeting. “It could happen.”
One employee of the plant said Thursday he and some co-workers have discussed the idea of the sardine cannery becoming a lobster processing plant. Most lobster that is landed in Maine is caught in the fall and then shipped to Canada, where much of it is processed into consumer products and then shipped back to the United States.
Stopping briefly in his truck while leaving the cannery Thursday night, cleaning crew member Mike Noyes said the idea of converting the plant into a lobster processing facility so far seems to be the most feasible.
“I think the lobster idea is the best,” Noyes said.
The issue of increasing the number of lobster processing facilities in Maine recently was examined by a state task force charged with determining how to help boost the industry’s long-term viability. Gov. Baldacci created the task force in October 2008 after the sagging global economy, escalating expenses and new harvesting regulations pinched the industry’s profits.
In 2008, the most recent year for which statistics are available, nearly 70 million pounds of lobster worth $244 million were caught and brought ashore in Maine. Those figures represent an increase of roughly 6 million pounds from 2007, but a drop of about $40 million in value.
David Etnier, deputy commissioner for Maine Department of Marine Resources, said Friday the state is taking steps to implement some of the task force recommendations.
One of those is a bill before the Legislature that would relax the rules about what lobster products licensed Maine processors can produce. Existing laws aimed at protecting Maine’s minimum lobster size restrict processors to selling shelled meat, Etnier said. The proposed law would allow the sale of split tails, claws and knuck-les in the shell.
Other countries and states already allow this, according to Etnier. Revised processing laws and more value-added products would make Maine processors more competitive in the global marketplace, he said.
Etnier said he hasn’t heard any speculation about whether it might be feasible to reuse the Prospect Harbor cannery for processing lobster. But he said the proposed changes to Maine’s processing laws might make it possible.
“The liberalization of those constraints should help,” Etnier said. “It should be a shot in the arm for anyone who is thinking about using that facility.”
James Nimon, a state official who sat on the lobster task force before becoming Baldacci’s senior economic adviser, said Friday there are other hurdles to expanding Maine’s lobster-processing capacity. The task force found that global demand for Maine lobster needs to increase if there are going to be more processors in Maine, he said. The current poor economy makes that a challenge.
He also said the notion that any new Maine processor could use lobster that otherwise would go to Canada is somewhat simplistic. Besides a supply of lobster, processors also need access to existing distribution channels and retailers, which is not so easy to establish, he said. Maine has three lobster processors now, and none is operating at 100 percent capacity, he said.
Because of seasonal fluctuations in the lobster supply, any new seafood processor likely will have to process other marine species such as mussels or shrimp, he said.
“There are so many pieces to this,” Nimon said. “The governor’s interest is in turning over every stone.”
As jarring as the announced closure has been for the community, one official said he was cautiously optimistic about the future.
Selectman James Watson said Thursday that Schoodic Peninsula communities have faced adversity before. In 2002, the Navy base closed, neighboring Winter Harbor’s school enrollment plummeted as a result, and mold problems forced the closure of Gouldsboro’s school.
But now, Watson said, the two towns share a new school just down the road from the cannery.
“This is not a good situation, but it could end up better than it was,” Watson said. “We’re going to get through this.”