Sardine canning was once as much a part of Maine's coastal fabric as lobster boats, but the recent closing of a sardine plant in the coastal...
GOULDSBORO, Maine — Sardine canning was once as much a part of Maine’s coastal fabric as lobster boats, but the recent closing of a sardine plant in the coastal town of Bath has left only one survivor from a once-thriving industry in the United States.
Global competition, changing palates and production efficiencies have contributed to the fall of canneries, but hopes are high that baby boomers will take to sardines’ health benefits and pump up future sales.
On the rocky shores of eastern Maine, the Stinson Seafood plant is hard to miss: Out front there’s an aluminum fisherman as tall as a telephone pole wearing yellow rain gear and proudly holding an oversized can of Beach Cliff Sardines.
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Inside the plant, where the odor of sardines lingers and workers still pack the fish by hand, there is a bittersweet feeling about being the last sardine cannery in the country.
“It’s unbelievable that there’s only one left,” said 73-year-old Lela Anderson, who has worked in sardine canneries since the 1940s, when she was in high school. “When you stop and think about it, you say, ‘This can’t be true.’ ”
Sardines are a hard sell on young people, with the average consumer trying them for the first time between 40 and 50 years old, said John Stiker, an executive vice president with Bumble Bee Seafoods, which owns the Stinson plant. But sardines have market appeal because they are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease.
Still, sardines are popular worldwide and canneries can be found in Scotland, Norway, Poland and other Baltic countries, Mexico, South America and Southeast Asia, Stiker said. He is bullish on the future because the U.S. population is aging and is more health-conscious than ever.
“We look at the aging population as a real boon for canned seafood,” he said, “and for canned sardines in particular.”
Sardine canneries were immortalized by John Steinbeck when he wrote about the canneries, flophouses and honky-tonks of Monterey, Calif., in his 1945 novel “Cannery Row.”
But Cannery Row never had it on Maine, where the first U.S. sardine cannery opened in 1875 in Eastport, in the eastern corner of the state along the Canadian border. Canneries sprouted in no fewer than 33 coastal communities, employing more than 6,000 workers. In 1900, the number of Maine canneries peaked at 75 and production five years later hit 344 millions cans, more than four cans for every American at the time.
Old black-and-white photos show cavernous factories with assembly lines of men, women and children sorting, snipping and packing sardines. In the earliest days, boys and girls were among the cutters using sharp knives to decapitate the fish with one slice and remove their entrails with another for $2 to $3 a day.
Anderson recalls coming in third place in the statewide sardine-packing contest. So big was the industry that the annual value of packed sardines routinely exceeded Maine’s famous lobster until the late 1960s.
But economics and consumer tastes changed, machinery became automated and the industry began a slow decline. According to National Marine Fisheries Service statistics, per-capita sardine consumption in the United States now stands at 0.1 pounds. That’s down from 0.2 pounds through most of the 1990s and 0.3 pounds through most of the ’80s. Overall sardine sales are flat at roughly $70 million to $75 million a year, reaching 12.5 to 15.5 percent of U.S. households, according to Bumble Bee.
Bumble Bee — which also operates the last U.S. tuna and shrimp canneries, and one of the last two U.S. clam canneries — recently spent $11 million to renovate the Stinson plant. The fish are no longer cut by hand — a machine does that — but employees still sort and pack the fish. They wear ear plugs to shield against the noisy machinery, and there’s a fishy odor in the air.
Last year, the plant processed 310,000 cases of sardines, or 3.1 million cans, said Peter Colson, production manager. The goal this year is to process 450,000 to 475,000 cases.
“Sales are still holding strong,” Colson said. “So somebody’s still eating them — 450,000 cases a year, that’s a lot of fish.”