For a hundred years, sardines have been processed in Prospect Harbor, Maine, at the Stinson Seafood cannery. It was once one of 46 sardine canneries that dotted the coast of Maine at the peak of the sardine fishery in the early 1950's. Now the Beach Cliff Sardines fisherman sign - a painted cutout that stands as tall as a telephone pole at the edge of the building's parking lot - looks out over the town from the last remaining sardine cannery in the US.
Last remaining until April, that is.
San Diego-based Bumble Bee Foods LLC, the current owner of the plant, announced on 17 February 2010 that they were ending operations in Prospect Harbor and closing the cannery. Federal catch limits for herring - reduced to 180,000 metric tons in 2004 and further reduced to 91,200 metric tons this year - are blamed by the company for the closing. They claim that the tighter limits have made it uneconomical to continue business there - even though Bumble Bee had previously told workers that they were committed to keeping the plant open regardless of the reduced catch level.
Maine is losing another bit of her history and her heritage. Prospect Harbor is losing a piece of its identity. And 130 people living there are losing their jobs, forced out of work in a county already struggling with a 10.9% unemployment rate. Tender-hearted Bumble Bee says that they'll offer laid-off employees jobs that open up at their other plants in New Jersey, Canada, California, and Puerto Rico. Mighty big of 'em. Maybe they think we've forgotten that the Snow's Clam Chowder that is now canned in Cape May NJ was also once a Maine product before they moved production out of New England and changed the recipe to slop.
Prospect Harbor, a village on the Schoodic Penninsula about 45 minutes east of Ellsworth, doesn't have many jobs to offer, and this closing is going to affect more than just the 130 people directly employed by the factory. Area lobstermen, for example, are already being squeezed by historically low lobster prices. They were able to buy herring for bait directly from the plant at a good, inexpensive price. After April, lobster bait is going to be more expensive, further cutting into their pockets.
And in the meantime, selectmen and other officials from the affected towns are working to help find a buyer for the cannery and explore alternatives to sardine processing.