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Staff Writers

PROSPECT HARBOR — Bumble Bee Foods said Wednesday that it will close the nation’s last sardine cannery in April, putting 130 people out of work.

The company blamed the closing on the latest federal fisheries restrictions, which have reduced the herring catch by 50 percent in the five-plus years since Bumble Bee bought the plant here.

”Regrettably, the dramatic reductions in herring catch limits within this region over the last six years have made it impossible for us to sustain operations at the plant,” said Chris Lischewski, president and CEO of Bumble Bee Foods, in a news release. ”After exploring all our options, we have made the difficult decision to cease all production at the plant in April of this year.”

Bumble Bee has owned and operated the former Stinson Seafood cannery since 2004. The 100-year-old plant is a major employer in this small Down East town, and is a major part of its identity.

A cut-out sign of a fisherman, as tall as a telephone pole, stands on the knoll over the cannery, holding a giant can of Beach Cliff Sardines — one of Bumble Bee’s brands for the fish.

The workers, many of them longtime employees, were notified Wednesday of the planned closure. Melody Kimmel, spokeswoman for the San Diego-based company, said the workers have been offered jobs that become available at Bumble Bee’s plants in California, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and Canada.

Anthony Cressler, 19, and Eric Deacon, 31, who work on the cleanup crew at the cannery, said some employees were upset Wednesday when they heard the news from company officials in California.

Cressler said employees were advised Tuesday of a companywide meeting planned for Wednesday.

”I knew it wasn’t good as soon as they came in,” said Cressler, who has worked at the cannery for about two years.

Both men said their prospects for employment aren’t good. Hancock County’s unemployment rate was 10.2 percent in December — two percentage points higher than the state’s rate.

Deacon, who has worked at the cannery for about a year, said some seasonal work might open up in the spring, particularly around Bar Harbor.

People at the plant were talking about having to move to find work, he said. ”Some of them have young families; they were quite concerned.”

Gov. John Baldacci said the state will work with the displaced workers to find them new jobs, and look for new uses for the cannery.

”This is a tough day for Prospect Harbor. During the next two months, we will do everything we can to put people back to work and find a new use for the plant,” Baldacci said in a written statement.

The end of the cannery marks the end of an industry that once thrived in Maine. The state’s first cannery opened in 1875, producing 600 cases, with more than 100 cans per case.

Thousands of Mainers once worked in canneries up and down the coast; the small canned fish helped nourish American soldiers in World War II.

In 1950, the industry hit its production peak, with 46 canneries producing 3.8 million cases. By 1970, there were just 21 canneries.

In 1999, Connors Bros. Ltd. of New Brunswick bought Stinson Seafood canneries in Bath, Belfast, Prospect Harbor and Lubec. After Connors closed the Bath plant in 2005, the only remaining cannery was the one in Prospect Harbor.

Kimmel, the Bumble Bee spokeswoman, said the company decided the operation in Prospect Harbor would not be financially viable with a dwindling supply of fish. The federal catch limit for herring was reduced from 180,000 metric tons a year in 2004 to 91,200 metric tons for this year.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said in a news release Wednesday that she was ”shocked and distressed” to hear about the planned closure.

”I am particularly disturbed about this decision since Bumble Bee assured my staff last fall that no plans were in the works to close this plant despite the virtual certainty of a reduced catch level of herring in 2010,” Snowe said.

”This sudden reversal of that commitment without any advance notice or effort to work with us to help steer this situation toward a more favorable outcome is inexcusable,” she said.

Snowe said Wednesday that she and U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., sent a letter to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, urging the agency to fund a National Research Council study of the 10-year timeline for rebuilding depleted fish stocks.

Snowe said the pending closure of the cannery in Prospect Harbor is ”another example of how fisheries management impacts entire coastal communities, not just those making a living on the water.”

The closing will also affect the Maine fishermen who supplied Bumble Bee with the herring. Their numbers were not immediately available.

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

[email protected]

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

[email protected]