Stinson Seafood | The Last Sardine Cannery in the US
“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.
Shortly before noon, the machines slowed and stopped. Everyone gathered around the packing belt. The last 130 cans to be produced in Maine, in the United States, were taken off the belt and put aside for the employees. Colson told Lela that she would pack the last one. She picked three small fillets and arranged them perfectly.
“That was a bad day,” Lela says, shaking her head just a bit. “A sad day. The head guy from California came and talked to us about our severance pay. Then we cleaned our lockers out and lined up to get our papers signed. Peter stood up in front of the line, and we went out saying our goodbyes. You couldn’t help crying. You couldn’t help it. You knew you couldn’t be with your friends. Then we walked out.”
She was driven home, and she put her final can of sardines in a glass display case in her dining room. Then she walked to the wharf, where her son was tending his traps.
“I had an operation last year,” Lela says, “and Peter had me doing quality control–repacking all the cans that weren’t done right. ‘Whenever you’re ready,’ he told me, ‘your table is waiting for you.’ I was going back on the line this summer.”
She looks right at me. “It got harder as you got older,” she says. “But I could go with the best of them. I’m a packer. I will always be a packer.”
SLIDE SHOW: The Last Sardine Cannery