The sardine industry in the United States began, and will end, in Maine.

”It was the financial backbone of the coast of Maine, Maine’s largest industry in its time,” said Ronnie Peabody, who runs the Maine Coast Sardine History Museum in Jonesport with his wife, Mary. ”It’s just a shame to know there’s nothing left now – not even in the United States at all.”

The industry began in 1875, when New York City businessmen came to Eastport looking for a site for the first U.S. sardine cannery.

Until then, sardines came from Norway, Portugal and Spain, Peabody said. The Franco-Prussian War disrupted the supply, so the businessmen looked to domestic production.

They opened the first factory in 1876. Within 23 years, there were 18 sardine canneries in Eastport, another 21 in Lubec, and others down the coast.

Thousands of Mainers worked in the canneries. The small canned fish helped nourish American soldiers in World War II. In the winter, when herring fishermen couldn’t use seine nets, the canneries would pack clams or lobsters, or make chowder.

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 in Prospect Harbor.

Part of the reason for the decline of the industry was the introduction of canned tuna, Peabody said. Sardines were a good lunch-box meal, he explained – two cans and some crackers were ideal. But tuna took a chunk of that market.

And Connors, which eventually merged with Bumble Bee, took a lot of production capacity off the market by closing the Maine plants, Peabody said.

But a market for sardines remains.

According to Bumble Bee, the Prospect Harbor plant was generating about $15 million in revenue annually.

Bumble Bee will continue to sell sardines. But they’ll be packed at the company’s plant in Blacks Harbour, New Brunswick.

”The impact it’s going to have now on the area is 130 jobs lost. The other thing is there’ll be no more Maine sardines – ever,” Peabody said.


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