Preserving Sardine History
April 3, 2010 -- Maine's sardine canning industry, once a major economic driver, is about to disappear. And Penobscot Marine Museum is playing the key role in preserving the history of the preserved herring.
Canning began in Eastport in 1875, and by the 1950s it was Maine's largest seafood industry. At its height, thousands of employees worked in 75 Maine canneries - one or more in nearly every coastal town of any size. And the canneries supported thousands more jobs, not the least being the fishermen who caught them.
Maine's last cannery, in Prospect Harbor, is Stinson Seafood Company, named for Calvin Stinson, who purchased the facility in 1927 and would later become known as Maine's "sardine king." The plant was destroyed by fire in 1968 and rebuilt as a modern factory. Now owned by Bumble Bee Foods, it features state of the art equipment. But it will close in April.
Reasons for the closing are many. The herring supply itself has shrunk, and access to what remains is restricted at the federal level in an attempt to rebuild the stocks. (Sardines, by the way, are small, processed herring.) The consumer market for canned sardines has been relatively flat for years. And canneries face competition for supplies from the lobster fishing industry, which uses the same fish for bait.
Recognizing the impending end of an industry that had so great an influence on the coastal Maine economy, Penobscot Marine Museum has spearheaded a project to document the cannery and the history of its workers. Partners in the project include the University of Maine's New Media Department and Maine Folklife Center; the SALT Institute in Portland; documentary photographer Markham Starr; and Compass Light Productions and Michael Alpert, working for the Historic American Engineering Record of the Library of Congress. The Maine Sea Grant Program provided funding for the Historic American Engineering Record work.
The Compass Light Productions video shows how sardines are canned today. While there is more automation than there was one hundred and thirty five years ago, the work still requires fast, focused and dedicated workers.
Penobscot Marine Museum also houses the archives of the Maine Sardine Council, and maintains archives of historic photographs of the sardine industy in the Atlantic Fisherman collection.
But with the closing of Maine's last cannery, an industry and the skills of its workers will be lost. "Sardineland" - once nearly synonymous with Maine - will be no more.
Read the New York Times article and see a slideshow on the plant closing and PMM's documentation project.