Cannery's Closure Marks End To Way Of Life In Maine

The nation's last sardine cannery closed on Friday. In the 1950s, Maine had more than 50 plants canning the tiny fish. Owner Bumblebee Foods attributes the cannery's closing to federal regulations that have reduced catch limits. Nearly 130 workers are expected to lose their jobs.

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The nation's last sardine cannery closed yesterday. The Stinson Seafood Cannery in Prospect Harbor, Maine, laid off 130 workers. But now, they're hoping a new owner will use the plant to process some other kind of seafood. Back in the early 1900s, the State of Maine had as many as 75 plants canning the tiny fish.

Anne Mostue visited on one of the final days of this way of life in coastal Maine.

ANNE MOSTUE: The Stinson Cannery sits on the edge of Prospect Harbor, about three-quarters of the way up Maine's coast. You could smell the fish before you even got in the door. Inside, the sound of jangling cans and the smell of fish were overpowering.

Myrtress Harrington was used to it.

Ms. MYRTRESS HARRINGTON (Former Cannery Employee): (unintelligible) and I've always been a fish packer.

MOSTUE: Harrington is 77 years old, and first started canning sardines at Stinson Seafood when she was 18.

Ms. HARRINGTON: I started in '50, but I didn't stay all them years straight steady. I had children in between.

MOSTUE: Harrington wore a hairnet, apron and gloves as she worked on the assembly line, packing the fish into tiny, rectangular cans. Sardines are an oily fish, about four inches long. And before they're processed and canned, they're called herring.

Ms. HARRINGTON: Well, I think you have to have a little coordination getting the fish in the cans right. And see, I've worked on cooked fish. And this is raw fish now. Today, I'm putting steaks in the can, little fish steaks. The girl that's packing with me, she does one can and she skips a can, and I do that can. That's the way we do the fish.

MOSTUE: While it was mostly women packing the fish, men worked at the plant too, hauling trays and putting them in the steamer, where they were blanched and marinated. The staff of 128 workers churned out about 100,000 cans of sardines a day.

Bumblebee Foods, which owns the cannery, attributes the closing to federal regulations that have reduced the catch limits on Atlantic herring. Al West was a fish buyer for the cannery. He says the herring catch limits are half of what they were six years ago, and the company could no longer produce enough sardines to keep the plant up and running.

Mr. AL WEST (Former Fish Buyer, Stinson Seafood): We've been very successful, and we've weathered a lot of storms. But the reduced quota was one that we had no control over.

MOSTUE: In this community, there aren't many opportunities for work. Many of the employees had been at the cannery for decades.

Myrtress Harrington was most concerned about the younger workers.

Ms. HARRINGTON: Well, I think we'll all manage. It's going to be harder on the younger people, I think. At my age, I think I can get by. See, I have my Social Security. No, I dont know - I think it's going to be hard but hopefully, they'll have something come in soon.

MOSTUE: Even if there is a buyer, it's unlikely that the cannery will continue to process sardines. But the workers say any jobs will be welcome.

For NPR News, Im Anne Mostue.

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