Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Another American Business Is Canned...

Lela Anderson's steady hands move quickly as she sits in her kitchen, demonstrating the motions made instinctive by 54 years of working in a sardine cannery. Armed with scissors, she makes two fast cuts on a phantom herring and packs it into an imaginary can as it zips by on an unseen conveyor belt. Anderson's speed belies her 78 years; she estimates she's packed more than one million sardine cans in her lifetime. Anderson has worked at a sardine processing plant for 54 years.

 The Stinson Seafood plant in Prospect Harbor, Maine is shutting down the nation's last sardine cannery putting nearly 130 employees out of work. Stinson is owned by Bumble Bee Foods LLC and the company says it is close to a deal to sell the plant to a seafood-processing company which intends to process lobsters and other types of seafood. But say goodbye to the sardine.  

According to a St Petersburg Times article, the closing of the plant marks the end of 135 years of sardine processing in the United States. 
At one time, there were dozens of canneries in Maine putting out more than 300 million cans a year at their peak.

But the number of canneries tumbled as U.S. consumption fell and foreign consumption increased. Bumble Bee said it was forced to close the plant because sharp cuts in the amount of herring that fishermen are allowed to catch in New England waters made it difficult to get enough fish to pack as sardines.
The economic effect will be severe on the rural Schoodic Peninsula, an area of raw, natural Maine beauty that, unfortunately, has little to offer in the way of jobs.

The peninsula has two main towns, Gouldsboro and Winter Harbor, and a number of tiny villages -- Prospect Harbor, Corea, Birch Harbor and others. There are few businesses in those communities, about 45 minutes east of Ellsworth.

Prospect Harbor, with about 450 residents, has a delicatessen, a few lobster dealers, a couple of bed-and-breakfasts and the cannery -- an outsized operation in this tiny village, 117,000 square feet of buildings on 11 acres.
About half of the 130-person work force comes from the peninsula. The others come from even more remote areas, some chasing cannery work as other plants have closed.

Now the chase has ended, and the effect will extend well beyond the 130 jobs lost at the plant.

Lobsterman Hollis Smith and Dave Whalen, his sternman, pulled away from the plant early Thursday morning, the back of their pickup filled with 20 bushels of herring. Lobstermen from the area buy herring for bait directly from the plant, paying only $11 a bushel -- a good price.
When the cannery closes, bait prices will increase -- squeezing an industry already pressured by low lobster prices, increasing regulations and rising costs.

"It's gonna be less money in our pockets," said Whalen. "It's going to be the trickle-down effect. It's going to affect everybody."

At the plant, it's mostly women on the packing floor, doing work considered hot, smelly and messy, said Diana Young, the first selectwoman in Winter Harbor and an office worker at the cannery for more than 40 years.
While some looked down on the packing work, others saw it as good money and good work in a tight-knit community.

"It was a way of life. It was what your mother did. It was what your grandmother did. People were not afraid of hard work. That's what brought them together," Young said. "The bell sounded and the whole town came. Right now, the community is in shock".

To Bumble Bee's credit, the company is going beyond state requirements for severance pay. In addition to one week's pay for every year of employment, Bumble Bee is giving workers an additional half-week's pay per year. So someone with 20 years would get 30 weeks of pay.
"Bumble Bee has to be given credit," said Young. "They have done a class act in a situation nobody wants to have happen."

Lela Anderson, at 78, said she was a bit surprised she outlived her industry. Her son remarked that the factory closing was the only way she'd actually retire, she said. She'll keep busy, helping people in the community who need a hand, Anderson said. She isn't worried about herself, but rather for those who have just started out in life. "It's going to hurt the younger people," she said. "You can't get jobs today. There's just no jobs to have."

A sign in front of the Prospect Harbor United Methodist Church said "God bless the Stinson employees"

And so it goes, not only another American company gone but an entire industry is gone. I ate a few sardines in my time but not many. Too many other things I liked more. And you probably didn't eat many either or none at all. But lots of other people did and it was a huge part of our country's workforce for over a century. 

You may never use certain products or eat certain foods but you should still feel sorry that we have lost another part of our history.

I will miss it and it is sad to see it go.

To read more about Stinson's Beach Cliff sardines click on this link: Beach Cliff Story.

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