Thursday, April 15, 2010

Last Maine sardine cannery closing

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Excerpt from: Bangor Daily News

The United States’ sardine industry began in Eastport in the late 1800s. Since then, more than 400 sardine factories have opened and closed along Maine’s coast.

“Way back when I was growing up, they had plants all over Down East,” said Beatrice Buckley, 77, who worked in the Stinson Seafood office for 16 years and has lived on the Schoodic Peninsula her entire life.

“We shipped to practically every state. There were warehouses everywhere.” At one time in the early 1950s, sardines were the largest economic industry in the state, supporting nearly 6,000 jobs, according to Peabody.

“That’s still hard for me to believe,” he said. “For so many years, it was the financial backbone for the coast.”

Like many coastal Mainers of a certain age, Peabody grew up on sardines. He remembers accompanying his father to local canneries to buy bait. Later in life, he and his wife, Mary, began collecting sardine-related artifacts. In 2001, they opened their history museum. It was still living history then.

From World War II through the 1990s, canneries steadily began to close. In 1999, Connors Bros. Ltd. of New Brunswick bought Stinson Seafood canneries in Bath, Belfast, Prospect Harbor and Lubec. Belfast and Lubec closed within a few years, followed by Bath in 2005.

Peabody said Connor Bros. and its sister company, Bumble Bee Foods, finished off the industry here. “They bought factories and closed them,” he said. “They wanted a monopoly. Now they have it.”

Robert Peacock of Eastport also grew up on sardines and even owned five sardine factories at one time. They have all closed. He has shifted instead to sea urchin and sea cucumber processing. Peacock said federal and state policies have made it virtually impossible to manufacture anything in Maine anymore.

“From the time I was a teenager on, any manufacturing has been decimated. It’s not a lack of fish or a lack or market,” he said. “If you want to see what can happen, go to [Connor Bros’ plant in] Blacks Harbour [New Brunswick].”

Peabody said that it’s cheaper and less regulatory to do business in Canada, but that the same could be said of dozens of other industries. Cannery officials also have blamed the industry’s death on federal reductions in the catch limit for Atlantic herring. The change was to combat overfishing, but some felt the restrictions went too far.

The reasons are irrelevant now.

“They did overfish, but not to the point where all these factories had to close,” Peabody said. “I think it will always be something that people feel bad about.”

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