- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 15, 2010

PROSPECT HARBOR, Maine | 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.

For the past 135 years, sardine canneries have been as much a part of Maine’s small coastal villages as the thick Down East fog. It’s been estimated that more than 400 canneries have come and gone along the state’s long, jagged coast.

The lone survivor, the Stinson Seafood plant here in this eastern Maine shoreside town, shuts down this week after a century in operation. It is the last sardine cannery in the United States. The last can will be packed on Thursday.

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,” Mrs. 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.

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, said 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.

Mr. 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,” Mr. Colson said as he watched workers swiftly pack cans in assembly line fashion. “It’s not easy seeing this go.”

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.

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?”

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