Here in New England
She came of age when weirs jutted from bays and coves in every town, capturing the herring as they swarmed in by the tens of thousands to feed in the spring and summer–so many that the water glistened like a sheet of silver when the men rowed out at night with flashlights. In daylight, sardine carriers pulled alongside the weirs; the men pulled the nets tight around the haul, then suctioned the fish onto the boat, before heading to a nearby cannery. Some towns had three or four plants strung along the shore, turning out packed sardines by the millions. (Processed Atlantic herring leave the factories as “sardines.”)
“When the fish came to the factories,” Lela says, “the whistle blew, telling us it was time to go to work.” Factory buses came to the villages to pick up the workers and brought them home at the end of the day. When Lela got to work, she’d tape her fingers and thumb and pick up her scissors, sharp as razors, with the blades ground over and over by machinists at the shop, until they couldn’t be ground anymore, and then it was time for a new pair.
“I went through four pair a year,” she says. “That’s how I got this,” and she holds her hand out for me to see the thumb joint on her left hand, her cutting hand, pushed up and knobby, as if the bone were trying to escape the flesh.
“I cut left-handed, so I’d pick my fish up with this hand, the same hand my scissors were on,” Lela explains, “and then I’d flip him over onto my right hand and I’d cut his head off, and I’d flip him over and cut the tail. Sometimes they’d bring buses of schoolkids and they’d say, ‘Wow, come quick!’ They’d run down the aisle: ‘Come see this lady! She’s fast.’ Because I was the fastest one with scissors.”
She packed sardines when Calvin Stinson Sr., who lived right there on the peninsula, owned 11 canneries up and down the coast. She was Prospect Harbor’s star packer when the fastest workers from all the plants converged on the annual Maine Lobster Festival in Rockland and faced off, with hundreds watching. Lela packed sardines when canned tuna became the new belle of the lunch ball, signaling a shift in American tastes. She was there when the cannery burned in 1968 and was rebuilt as a spanking-new and modern plant, with machines replacing the scissors, so that by the mid-1970s she could just put presliced herring sections into the cans.
“Well, I liked the scissors, but I liked that better,” Lela concedes. “I liked it all cut up, ’cause then you didn’t cut your hands.” But then her pride kicks in: “You had to be a lot more skilled then, a lot more,” she says. By the mid-1980s, frozen herring had come into the plant; Lela’s hands would turn cold, and whenever she could she’d hold them by the heat of her conveyor belt. “You’d just have to suffer it,” she says.
Change was happening at sea, too: from the use of “fixed-gear” weirs and stop seines to purse seining, which let fishermen go beyond the coves, to midwater trawling from big boats that moved in on the fishing grounds and scooped up the herring by the ton before they could reach the nets of the local fishermen. The schools that once contained millions of herring were declining. The traditional ways that had sustained the fishery since the time of the Native Americans were in decline, and by the early 1970s the herring were in trouble. New federal quotas revived the fishery, but an inexorable worry set in.
The number of canneries dwindled, even as the plants were having trouble finding younger workers. Where once more than 50 canneries had operated, by 1975 only 15 survived. The Stinson family sold its plants in 1990, and 10 years later the new owner sold them to Connors Bros., a firm based in Blacks Harbour, New Brunswick, that had been buying and closing Maine sardine factories since the 1980s. Connors promptly closed Stinson plants in Belfast, Lubec, and finally Bath, leaving only Prospect Harbor, which was then sending 120,000 sardine cans into the world each day.
In 2004 Bumble Bee Foods merged with Connors. For the first time, Lela’s work life was in the hands of a far-off corporation. Then in November 2009 a new, lower herring quota for the New England fishery was proposed: The total allowable catch would be cut nearly in half, to 91,000 metric tons. Soon after, Bumble Bee announced that the prospective drop in herring supply was forcing the company to close Stinson. In the small towns, this statement was met with skepticism. People noted that now the firm’s Blacks Harbour plant would have no North American competition. Whatever the reasons, it was over.
On April 15 Lela came to Stinson before 6:00, put on her apron, hat, earplugs, and blue rubber gloves. A few days before, Peter Colson had thrown a company barbecue and given every worker a surprise book of photos documenting what their work had meant. Now, one more time, the machinery hummed and rumbled, the fish slid down the belts, the cans whizzed by and were packed, covered in sauces or oil, and sterilized.