End of an(other) era

 Change is inevitable, but sometimes it's more painful than others. And it will be painful on 18 April, when 128 seafood-processing employees in my home state of Maine complete their final day of work at what has become a true dinosaur: the last sardine cannery standing on U.S. soil.

Last week, the news broke that the old Stinson Seafood plant in Prospect Harbor, a tiny village in Downeast Maine, will cease operations. A lot of people around there weren't aware that a local firm no longer owned the facility that produces Beach Cliff-branded sardines, let alone the fact that it's been sold twice in the last decade — a sign of the times if there ever was one. It's now the property of Bumble Bee Foods, which became owner in 2004 when the San Diego company was part of the portfolio of Canadian firm Connors Bros. Income Fund.

A Bumble Bee representative told the Bangor Daily News that the reduced herring quota was the main reason for this business decision. The quota has been essentially halved over the past several years, from 180,000 metric tons in 2004 to 91,250 metric tons this year, with future cuts certain. If it wasn't very profitable to can sardines in the United States before — and it wasn't — it certainly didn't stand to get any better. Bumble Bee was contractually obligated to operate the plant through 2010, but it is seeking a waiver because of the reportedly poor state of the herring stocks.

Bumble Bee, like any reasonable company, doesn't want to operate in an environment of uncertainty, especially now. And the Atlantic herring quota is the epitome of uncertainty.

I asked a representative of the New England Fishery Management Council why the quota has come down so far in so short a time. "Scientific uncertainty" was the answer. The Atlantic herring fishery is not overfished, nor is overfishing occurring, the spokesperson said, using the succinct legalese of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. Fishery managers simply can't trust the data they've collected and are erring on the side of caution.

However, it's been pointed out to me several times in the past week that Gulf of Maine fishermen are actually complaining about all the herring getting tangled up in their nets. This may be anecdotal evidence, but it indicates a telling disconnect between the industry and fishery managers (now there's some breaking news).

Additionally, because Atlantic herring is a resource shared by U.S. and Canadian fishermen, wouldn't an international oversight body, similar to what the Pacific coast has in place for halibut (the International Pacific Halibut Commission) work for Atlantic herring, cod, haddock and flounder? Yet no such agreement exists.

With U.S. fishery management, sometimes it seems like the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing. Hopefully the United We Fish rally in Washington, D.C., shook things up.

Also, consider the lobstermen who need herring to bait traps, as they have almost exclusively for more than two decades. The Stinson cannery, which stood proudly for more than a century, also sold bait to Downeast lobstermen on the cheap. Scarcer bait is sure to be more expensive, the cost of which is unlikely to be covered in lobster sales because it's well documented how little the market is willing to dish out for the crustacean these days.

Local politicians are kicking around the idea of turning the plant into a lobster-processing plant, but that only raises more questions, particularly whether it could ever succeed. Canadian companies dominate the processed-lobster market, while Maine lobsters, by and large, are shipped live. And considering Gov. John Baldacci's intent to "move heaven and Earth" to help the soon-to-be unemployed, any business brave enough to take over the facility would likely receive a healthy grant, which could spur claims of unfair competition. Man, the lobster business is contentious enough.

Now, there's always the possibility that Bumble Bee didn't envision sardine canning as part of its future anyway and the lower quota just made the decision easier. Either way, losing another U.S. seafood processor is not a change for the better. But, as the dubious fishery science indicates, it was inevitable.


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