PROSPECT HARBOR – 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 well over 1 million sardine cans in her lifetime.

Soon, phantoms and imagination will be all that’s left of the sardine industry in Maine — and in the United States.

Bumble Bee Foods announced last week it plans to close its 100-year-old Prospect Harbor sardine cannery in April, putting 130 people out of work, including Anderson. The company cited federal catch limits as the reason for the closure.

Atlantic herring quotas have shrunk from 180,000 metric tons in 2004 to 145,000 metric tons, and the National Marine Fisheries Service is expected to drop the quota further — to 91,250 metric tons — for the next three years. This will cut deep enough into the fish supply to make the cannery financially untenable.

It’s the last sardine cannery in the United States. In a state where thousands of people were once employed at almost 50 canneries, the pending demise is hard to fathom for longtime workers like Anderson.

”It’s going to take a little while to sink in. It just doesn’t seem real,” said Anderson, of Corea. ”It’s like everything. Everything dies out.”

The economic impact will be heavy on the rural Schoodic Peninsula, an area of raw, natural 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 deli, a few lobster dealers, a couple of bed-and-breakfasts and the cannery — an outsized operation in this village, 117,000 square feet of buildings on 11 acres.

About half of the 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 impact will go 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 go up — squeezing an industry already pressured by low lobster prices, increasing regulations and rising costs.

”It’s going to be less money in our pockets,” Whalen said. ”It’s going to be the trickle-down effect — it’s going to affect everybody.”

At the plant, the employees on the packing floor are mostly women, 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.”

TIES THAT BIND

Within hours of hearing that the cannery was closing, the roughly dozen customers at the Nautica Pub in Birch Harbor were abuzz. All of them knew someone who worked there, and many had worked there themselves.

Phyllis Bradstreet, a 25-year employee, sat at the bar. Tending bar was her daughter, Christine Bragdon, who worked at the cannery for six months after graduating from high school. Shooting pool in the next room was Bradstreet’s brother, who worked at the cannery for several years. Phyllis’ husband, Arvide Bradstreet, sat joking with friends. A lobsterman since he was 13, he’s worked at the cannery, too.

So did Phyllis Bradstreet’s mother, her father, her other daughter and her sons.

It’s a familiar theme in a small town where there’s one main employer. You could swap the cannery and harbor town for a paper company and mill town. Everybody’s worked there, or has some close connection to it. It’s a shared experience that makes tight communities even tighter.

”You either got to be lobstering, or working at the factory,” Arvide Bradstreet said.

The packing floor pays in piecework — workers are compensated for the number of cases they fill, 100 cans to the case. Skilled packers can make $12 an hour, Bragdon said.

”There’s nowhere they’re going to go to find that kind of job,” she said.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Anderson said she was making $500 to $600 a week as a packer. The process changed in recent decades — packers no longer had to cut the fish, increasing her weekly pay to $800 to $900 a week.

Many of the women put their children through college with their cannery earnings, Young said.

”A lot of kids in this area have gone to bigger and better, so to speak, because of their folks working in the factory,” she said.

And those women on the floor would talk across the conveyor belts about those kids, about their families. They’d chat, tell stories over the clattering of cans and machinery noise. It was a fun place to be, Anderson said.

”I’m going to miss it. It’s going to be worse when it comes to the last day, parting with your friends,” she said. ”It’s going to be hard — oh, it’s going to be hard.”

Young was hired at the factory in the mid-1960s just a few years out of high school, earning $1.25 an hour for office work.

Over the years, she became trained in the business. She bought sardines in European markets, and learned how to work exchange rates to make money for the company. She learned about sales. Today, she handles logistics for the cannery.

”I was fortunate to get exposed to a huge scale of knowledge,” she said.

What happens to a community when such a touchstone is lost? The people here don’t know — this will be a painful first for them.

”I suppose you’d have to look at history — I bet coal mines were the same type of thing,” Young said. ”When it’s gone forever . . . it’s really going to be difficult.”

APRIL AND BEYOND

Right now, the community is in shock, Young said. Selectmen in Winter Harbor and Gouldsboro are working together, and plan to meet with company officials to learn more about redevelopment plans. Bumble Bee is aggressively seeking buyers for the plant, but no one imagines another firm will process sardines. Some in the community have mentioned processing lobster meat.

The state has already sent its Department of Labor and Department of Economic and Community Development experts into town, trying to identify potential replacement businesses and talking with employees about the steps for unemployment benefits and possible retraining.

”With the age of our work force — myself included — we’re a hard situation for retraining. When you’ve only known factory work, it’s going to be very difficult,” Young said. ”I love the word ‘retrain,’ but for what? You have to have something in mind that’s available.”

The company is going beyond state requirements for severance. In addition to one week’s pay for every year of employment, Bumble Bee is giving workers an additional half-week per year. So someone with 20 years would get 30 weeks of pay.

”Bumble Bee has to be given credit,” Young said. ”They have done a class act in a situation nobody wants to have happen.”

Anderson, at 78, said she was a bit surprised she outlived her industry. Her son remarked that having the factory close was the only way she’d actually retire, she said.

She’ll keep busy, helping people in the community who need a hand. 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.”

 

Staff Writer Matt Wickenheiser can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

[email protected]