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April 1, 2010

A way of life ends in Prospect Harbor, as only remaining American sardine cannery closes

by Sandra Dinsmore

"That sardine factory has been a part of my life and a part of my family's life for three or four generations," said Gouldsboro Selectmen Dana Rice. "Well, almost anybody in this area has some relationship [with the cannery] unless you just moved here a couple of weeks ago."

When cannery owner Bumble Bee Foods LLC announced in mid-February that it was closing the former Stinson's Seafood plant, the last sardine cannery in the United States, it marks the end of an era along the Maine coast and more tough times for this region. Between 125 and 130 people are expected to lose their jobs when the plant closes April 18.

Gov. John Baldacci met with local officials and Bumble Bee CEO Chris Lischewski on March 12 to talk about other uses of the plant. State and local officials are still working with seafood companies interested in buying the plant. Bumble Bee is owned by Centre Partners Management LLC, a private equity firm.

The Prospect Harbor plant is the last of a long line of canneries in the state. Since 1876, there have been as many as 418 different sardine factories in Maine, according to Ronald Peabody, owner and director of the Maine Coast Sardine History Museum in Jonesport. At the peak of the industry, in 1952, there were 50 canneries in the state. The Prospect Harbor plant was built in 1906 and was purchased in 1927 by Calvin Stinson and Jonas Wass.

Brenda Driscoll, at the Prospect Harbor Town Office, is an example of how closely interwoven the cannery is with the community: her granddaughter's husband and great-grandson's father work there. "I think it's going to be devastating," she said. "I really do. So many people depend on it for their livelihood. It's a sad thing." Asked what she thought people would do for jobs, she said, "I don't know. They're so scarce now, and the unemployment rate is so high."

Bumble Bee had an amended consent decree with the state of Maine to keep the plant open until the end of 2010. In a prepared statement, Lischewski said Bumble Bee asked for a waiver from its 2010 production requirements at Prospect Harbor because of the proposed "significant reduction in the federally-set total allowable catch for herring."

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) was upset by the announcement. Snowe said, in a press release, that Bumble Bee had assured her staff last fall that there were no plans to close the plant, despite expectations of a reduced catch level for herring. "This sudden reversal of that commitment without any advance notice or effort to work with us to help steer this situation towards a more favorable outcome is inexcusable," Snowe said.

Bumble Bee has offered employees at the Prospect Harbor plant the option to work at company plants in New Jersey, Louisiana, California, Puerto Rico or Canada. However, Christopher Cowperthwaite, 21, Driscoll's grandson-in-law, who works sealing lids on the sardine cans, said, "The stipulation is: they won't pay for you to get there, they won't provide housing, they won't even guarantee you a job. You have to put in an application like everyone else." Asked what he was going to do, Cowperthwaite answered, "I don't know. There isn't much to do around here."

And that's a big part of the problem: Gouldsboro, where Cowperthwaite and his family live, Prospect Harbor, Winter Harbor, and Corea are just about on the line that separates Hancock from Washington County, an area known for its high unemployment. In fact, Cowperthwaite said the factory draws employees from the Washington County towns of Harrington, Columbia Falls and Jonesport.

Cowperthwaite's wife had a job, but was laid off three week's before the announcement of the cannery closure. "We got a new house: first time home-buyers," Cowperthwaite said. "And we have a two-year-old son. I'll be on unemployment as of April 18. My wife is on unemployment when she's laid off." He stopped a moment, then said, "We're pretty much speechless because there's nothing we can do or say that's going to change it."

Sardine packer Lela Anderson, of Corea, has worked at the Prospect Harbor plant for 54 of her 78 years. She started working at Stinson's in 1956.

Asked how news of the cannery's closing was affecting people, Anderson said, "It's still sinking in, I think it's still hitting people. Every day. As it grows to the closing day, it'll really be hard. It's the young people that are really going to feel it, going to be hurt. What are they going to do? There are so many of them."

A woman taking a cigarette break who asked not to be identified, said, "It still hasn't sunk in that we're going to be out of work." She then said, "It's a shame: they put in $5 or 6 million in here in the last five years." Anderson thinks Bumble Bee might have put more than that amount into the plant improving bathrooms and other parts of the building. According to Lischewski's statement, Bumblee Bee fulfilled the terms of the state consent decree, and invested $12 million into the plant.

Upon hearing that management does not want employees to talk to the media, Anderson didn't understand why and said, "I'm not going to say anything bad about the plant. I've worked here 54 years. I enjoy it. It's my life."

Everyone, of course, hopes some company will come in and take over the cannery.

"I'd like to entice somebody in there who would have a bigger labor force," said Gouldsboro Selectman Dana Rice, regarding his and his town's search for a business to take over the plant.

Rice, who has been an intermediary between the Town of Gouldsboro and Bumble Bee said, "What makes it different from a plant closing up north in Maine is if a paper mill or something closes, there's always some other paper company, there's a possibility, that might come in. What we've got to try to do here, working with the Bumble Bee people, is see if we can find a new occupant for that factory, and it will have to be a totally different mission."

"Talks are ongoing, and I'm very hopeful," Rice said. "I'm encouraged by all the support from Augusta and Washington."

Sandra Dinsmore is a freelance writer who lives in Penobscot.



click to enlargeThe iconic sign outside the Prospect Harbor plant.
The iconic sign outside the Prospect Harbor plant. Sandra Dinsmore

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