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Last U.S. sardine cannery may get second life

A deal is close to save the plant that was the nation's last sardine cannery and use it to process lobsters and other types of seafood, the Maine governor's office said Thursday.
Stinson sardine cannery
A worker fills cans with sardines April 8 at the Stinson Seafood plant in Gouldsboro, Maine. The cannery, the last of its kind in the U.S., was scheduled to close Thursday.Robert F.Bukaty / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A deal is close to save the plant that was the nation's last sardine cannery and use it to process lobsters and other types of seafood, the Maine governor's office said Thursday.

A seafood-processing company has signed a nonbinding letter of intent to buy the Stinson Seafood plant from Bumble Bee Foods LLC, said David Farmer, spokesman for Gov. John Baldacci. He did not name the prospective buyer.

The announcement came on the final day of sardine processing at the plant in the eastern Maine village of Prospect Harbor. Its closing marks the end of 135 years of sardine processing in the United States.

A new owner would use the plant to process lobster and other seafood, but probably not sardines — any of dozens of small, oily, cold-water fish that are part of the herring family.

Bumble Bee announced in February it was shutting down the Stinson cannery after a century of operation, putting nearly 130 employees out of work.

At one time, there were dozens of canneries in Maine putting out more than 300 million cans a year at their peak.

But the number of canneries tumbled as U.S. consumption fell and foreign competition increased. Bumble Bee said it was forced to close the Stinson plant because sharp cuts in the amount of herring that fishermen are allowed to catch in New England waters has made it difficult to get enough fish to pack as sardines.

Since the announcement, several companies have told state officials they might be interested in the plant to process lobster or other seafood.

The governor hopes to announce a deal by mid-May, Farmer said.

Bumble Bee officials said they couldn't discuss the status of discussions with any buyers due to confidentiality obligations, but hoped to complete a sale in the next month or two.

"We appreciate the support that the governor and the state have offered in the effort to quickly transition the facility to a new owner," said Bumble Bee CEO Chris Lischewski.

Farmer said the prospective buyer has indicated it would give hiring preference to current cannery employees.

The intensely fishy smell of sardines has been the smell of money for generations of workers in Maine who have snipped, sliced and packed small, silvery fish into billions of cans on their way to Americans' lunch buckets and kitchen cabinets.

It's been estimated that more than 400 canneries have come and gone along the state's long, jagged coast.

Lela Anderson, 78, has worked in sardine canneries since the 1940s and was among the fastest in sardine-packing contests that were held back in the day. Her packing days are over; now she's a quality-control inspector looking over the bite-sized morsels in can after can that passes by her.

"It just doesn't seem possible this is the end," Anderson lamented last week while taking a break at the plant where she's worked for 54 years. She and nearly 130 co-workers will lose their jobs.

Once considered an imported delicacy, sardines now have a humble reputation. They aren't one species of fish. Instead, sardines are any of dozens of small, oily, cold-water fish that are part of the herring family that are sold in tightly packed cans.

Inside a cannery
The first U.S. sardine cannery opened in Maine in 1875, when a New York businessman set up the Eagle Preserved Fish Co. in Eastport.

Dozens of plants soon popped up, sounding loud horns and whistles to alert local workers when a boat came in with its catch from the herring-rich ocean waters off Maine. By 1900 there were 75 canneries, where knife-wielding men, women and young children expertly sliced off heads and tails and removed innards before packing them tight into sardine tins.

These days most of the canning is automated and the fish are cut with machines, though still packed by hand. The Stinson packers are all women because they are thought to have stronger backs and better dexterity than men, according to plant manager Peter Colson.

Inside the spacious Stinson plant, dozens of workers in hairnets, aprons and gloves sort, pack and cook the herring that stream along flumes and conveyors. The fish are blanched in a 208-degree steamer for 12 minutes and later, cooked in sealed cans at about 250 degrees for 35 minutes.

Ear plugs muffle the cacophony of clanking cans, rattling conveyor belts, rumbling motors and hissing steam. A fishy smell hangs in the air. Outside, a billboard-sized sign of a fisherman in yellow oilskins holding an oversized can of Beach Cliff sardines, the plant's primary product, serves as reminder of Maine's long sardine history.

Colson has been in the sardine business for 38 years. He got his first job as a youngster at another cannery, an hour's drive away, where his father was the manager.

"This is it. We don't have any more," Colson said as he watched workers swiftly pack cans in assembly line fashion. "It's not easy seeing this go."

Changing tastes
Production at Maine canneries has been sliding since peaking at 384 million cans in 1950. Faced with declining demand and a changing business climate, the plants went by the wayside one by one until, five years ago, the Stinson plant was the last one standing. Last year it produced 30 million cans.

Still, it came as a surprise to employees when Bumble Bee Foods announced in February that the plant would close because of steep cuts in the amount of herring fishermen are allowed to catch in the Northeast. The New England Fishery Management Council set this year's herring quota at 91,000 metric tons — down from 180,000 tons in 2004 — because of the uncertain scientific outlook of the region's herring population.

Shortages have forced San Diego-based Bumble Bee to truck in much of the herring needed at the Maine plant from its other cannery in Blacks Harbour, New Brunswick, and from herring suppliers as far away as New Jersey.

Even without the quota cuts, the plant was under pressure from shrinking consumer demand, increased foreign competition from countries with lower labor costs — primarily from China and Thailand — and thin margins and low prices on the retail market.

Sardines at one time were an inexpensive staple for many Americans who packed them into their lunchboxes and enjoyed a can or two — or perhaps a sardine sandwich — for lunch. The fish — usually packed in oil or in sauces such as mustard, hot sauce, tomato or green chilies — can still be had at supermarkets for a little over $1 a can, but they're not in too many lunch pails these days.

Ronnie Peabody, who runs the Maine Coast Sardine History Museum in the town of Jonesport 35 miles up the road from the Stinson plant, has a cookbook published in 1950 called "58 Ways to Serve Sardines." It includes recipes for sardine soup, sardine casserole, baked eggs and sardines, and creamed sardines and spinach.

Sardine consumption began falling decades ago, he said, after canned tuna came on the market and Americans' tastes changed. The closing of the last U.S. cannery is the end of an era, he said.

"It's like reading an obituary in the paper," he said. "It's really sad, but what can you do?"

A bygone era
If the last sardine can is packed on Thursday, plant workers say it'll be like a family being split up.

Stinson sardine cannery
In this Thursday, April 8, 2010 photo, workers fill cans at the Stinson sardine cannery in Gouldsboro, Maine. The sardine cannery, the last one operating in the U.S., will shut down this week. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)Robert F.Bukaty / AP

Many of the employees have worked together for decades. Anderson, a tiny woman with strong hands and a strong back from years of packing small fish pieces into cans, said she'll be leaving behind close friends when the plant closes.

But she won't much miss the sardines, which she doesn't eat.

"I'm not saying I hate them," she said, "I'm just saying I'm not a big eater of them."

Talks are in the works to sell the plant to another company to process lobster or other seafoods. Bumble Bee has invested more than $11 million in the plant in recent years, and there's a work force at the ready.

Bumble Bee operates one of the last two U.S. clam canneries, in Cape May, N.J., and of the last two domestic tuna canneries, in California.

In Monterey, Calif., a group of self-described "sardinistas" has taken on the task of trying to get Americans to eat more sardines. It was in Monterey where sardine canneries were made famous in John Steinbeck's 1945 novel, "Cannery Row," about the misfits and outcasts on a street lined with sardine canneries.

The group is formulating a business plan in hopes of returning "the lowly sardine to the American palate," said Mike Sutton, a vice president at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, who says sardines — high in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, low in contaminants — are among the healthiest seafoods around.

But not canned sardines. Sutton's group wants to promote fresh sardines sold at white-tablecloth restaurants or in foil packs or in prepared foods at retail stores, much the way tuna and salmon are now sold.

"We recognize the American public turns their noses up at sardines," Sutton said. "It may be a challenge and it may be insurmountable, but our motto is 'It's not your grandfather's sardine.'"