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Last U.S. sardine cannery may get second life

Owner says buyer has been found to keep Maine processing facility open

Image: Stinson sardine cannery
Robert F.Bukaty / AP
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.
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Image: Stinson sardine cannery
  Last U.S. sardine cannery closes
April 15: The last U.S. sardine packing plant shuts down, ending a trade that operated in Maine for 135 years. TODAYshow.com's Dara Brown reports.

TODAYshow.com

By Clarke Canfield
updated 1:37 p.m. ET April 15, 2010

PROSPECT HARBOR, Maine - 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.

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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."


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