Coastal Maine communities that once thrived on the sea's bounty are facing the end of an era
Lela Anderson took her first job in a sardine cannery when she was a sophomore in high school, and except for a few summers picking blueberries, she has worked on the packing line stuffing sardines in tins most of her adult life.
Anderson, who turns 79 in June, had worked 54 years for the Stinson Seafood cannery in Prospect Harbor, Maine, when it closed this spring. The towering tin figure of a fisherman in yellow slickers outside the plant is now a relic of the past, when sardines were the present and future of this tiny fishing village tucked into the craggy coast of northeast Maine's Schoodic Peninsula.
"I was the fastest packer at one time," Anderson says. Mind concentrated, hands flying in a blur, she would pack thousands of tins a day of Atlantic herring, the fish used for New England sardines. Before automation, she would cut off the heads and tails with scissors. A slight miscue and she could slice a finger to the bone. "We taped our fingers so we wouldn't get such bad cuts," she says.
The cannery burned down in 1968, so Anderson worked at another in Belfast, Maine, until Stinson rebuilt and added automatic fish-cutting machines. In the 1970s, the cannery still was a big local employer, providing jobs for 1,000 to 1,200 workers in this region of islands, peninsulas and fishing harbors.
Before closing April 18, Stinson was the last sardine cannery in the United States. It employed 128 people in a state where, in 1900, 75 canneries and 81 smokehouses employed 9,000 workers, according to sardine fishery historian John D. Gilman of Deer Island, New Brunswick. "In the '30s when Detroit was going big with cars, every [autoworker 's] lunch box had a tin of sardines in it," says Gilman.
Anderson thought that was the way it always would be. "When we were young, we never dreamt the sardine plant would ever be gone," she says.
Pinched by changing tastes - Americans today prefer tuna to sardines - voracious demand for herring as lobster bait, industry consolidation and regulations that have slashed Maine's near-shore herring catch by nearly half, the Stinson cannery's most recent owner, Bumble Bee, shut it down. Bumble Bee says the plant had been generating annual revenues of $15 million - money that went into employee paychecks and benefits, paid tradesmen and then wound up in the hands of local stores, restaurants and businesses.
Anderson doesn't know what she'll do. "I don't plan to sit back and do nothing," she vows, but she doesn't drive. Her home is in Corea, three-and-a-half miles from the plant, so she could ride to work with friends. There are no other big employers nearby.
That's why Barbara Haycock joined the cannery eight years, nine months and four days before it turned out its last can of Beach Cliff brand sardines. Haycock remembers exactly when she started there because it was a red-letter day for her. Like Anderson's husband, Haycock's is a self-employed lobsterman. Stinson "provides my family with health insurance and it supplements our income in winter when my husband's not working," she says.
Haycock, 57, also a Corea resident, worked at a restaurant, then as a part-time cook's helper at the Winter Harbor elementary school, where she hoped one day to get a full-time job - with benefits. But in 2002 the Navy base in Winter Harbor closed. The 67-year-old training and communications station - a relic of Cold War eavesdropping - employed nearly 400 military personnel and civilians. After the Navy moved out, the Winter Harbor school's enrollment plunged to 28 children. The handwriting was on the wall: The school cafeteria wouldn't be needing any more full-time workers, and the cook - who held the only 40-hour cafeteria job - didn't plan to retire anytime soon, though she was 80 years old.
"People that have those jobs hang on to them," Haycock says. So when work opened at the cannery, she jumped at the chance to apply.
The Haycocks have a daughter in college, their insurance is in jeopardy, and the lobster market is in a funk. Bait and fuel prices are up, prices for lobster are down, and herring shortages augur yet higher prices for bait to put in lobster traps.
Even so, moving away from the Maine coast seems unthinkable. "My husband has lived on this same road his entire life," Haycock says. "There's no way he can move." Lobstering is what he knows. Lobstering is what he loves.
"We know how to plow some and to catch lobsters," says Yvonne Wilkinson, the clerk, manager, treasurer, tax collector and welfare director of the town of Gouldsboro, which encompasses Prospect Harbor. "That's our experience here."
If there has been a growth industry in Gouldsboro, it has been building summer homes for city folk and others who flock to coastal Maine for rest and relaxation, and a few small businesses that rent kayaks and bicycles, and supply hiking gear. Prospect Harbor and Corea, along with many other small towns and villages along the Maine coast and New England, are struggling to survive as fishing communities. Overfishing and stricter fisheries regulation,
industrial-sized fishing vessels and consolidation of the fishing business into a few big entities are squeezing out both the small processors and the small-boat fishermen who traditionally have been the backbone of these towns and villages.
"The pressures are multifaceted," says Natalie Springuel, a Maine Sea Grant extension associate who is working to help preserve Maine fisheries.
Prerecession, waterfront values were soaring. The property tax burden was forcing many Mainers to pull up roots and sell their coastal property, and the waterfront that had sustained Maine's fisheries for generations went up for sale and was converted to other more profitable uses, chiefly residential or retail, she says.
Sprawling waterfront homes, condominiums and upscale marketplaces replaced fishing docks and fish houses. This wholesale gentrification, which is happening across the country, is the death knell for the working waterfront that supports fishing boats, seafood plants and other marine businesses - marinas, boatyards and boatbuilders - that employ locals and drive local commerce.
"We have in the neighborhood of 5,300 miles of coastline [in Maine]," Springuel says. "Just 20 miles of it is working waterfront." And more than half that working waterfront is "in private holdings, at the whim of the market," she says. It could be converted at any time to private homes or condos.
The shuttering of the Stinson cannery is the latest setback. "It's devastating," says Dana Rice, 63, who sees the loss of working waterfront from the perspective of both a lobster dealer and Gouldsboro's first selectman.
The immediate impact is lost jobs, lost wages and lost income for local businesses and tradespeople in a town where good jobs are as scarce as hen's teeth unless you lobster. "We have a few moms and pops and some cottage industries that employ four or five people," says Rice. "That's it."
The long-term consequences are less obvious. Working under a new fisheries law that requires cuts in catches if there is scientific uncertainty about a fish stock's health, the New England Fisheries Council reduced the herring catch in the Gulf of Maine from 45,000 to 26,500 metric tons in each of the next three years. Many suspect the uncertainty has little to do with the actual health of the fishery and more to do with shortage of funds to study the stock and draw solid conclusions. In either case, Rice is confident the allowable catch for herring will go up again.
"When the numbers come back - and they will, no question in my mind - we have no cannery to process sardines in this country," he says. "It's gone. We have a resource worth hundreds of millions of dollars and no place to process it. ... We've lost an industry that, chances are, will never come back."
Many worry that the decline of New England's groundfish stocks carries similar dangers. Fewer fish require stricter catch limits. Stricter catch limits force many of the small fishing boats and processors out of the business, and the docks and uplands that supported them are gobbled up and converted to other uses.
Will it be possible to restore this waterfront for use by fishing boats and bait houses and processing plants when the fisheries come back, as many hope they will with good management? Once lost to fishing, that waterfront likely will be lost forever.
"With demand for waterfront so high, fisheries are having a hard time holding on to it while fishing is in decline," says Catherine Schmidt, Maine Sea Grant's communications coordinator and a
co-author with Springuel of a 2007 national Sea Grant study, "Access to the Waterfront." "Fishermen may not be able to recover access to the waterfront when the fisheries return."
Grants and tax breaks
Maine Gov. John Baldacci has vowed that his administration will do everything in its power to woo another seafood processor to the Stinson cannery. It likely will be lobster-related, but Rice worries that the plant will be lost to fisheries forever.
"What has happened to us [in Gouldsboro] over the last 20 or 30 years is that a big percentage of our taxpayers are non-residents now," he says.
The town had a population of just 1,941 when the 2000 census was taken. Summer residents are its only growth industry. Rice says Gouldsboro welcomes them. They generate seasonal income for locals and create jobs in the home-building trades. "[But] we don't want to turn the town into a cottage community totally," he says.
The folks who flock to the town in summer for a respite from city living and to seek refuge in nearby Acadia National Park don't want that to happen, either. They, too, want to preserve Gouldsboro's 126 lobster boats, the lobstermen's docks and moorings, their salty lifestyle, and the savory catch they bring home and sell fresh at the market, says Rice.
"You can still make a good living in the fishing industry here," he says. Rice has owned a sardine carrier - the 83-foot Jacob Pike (see accompanying story) - built in 1949 to carry herring from weirs and seines to the sardine factories that used to dot the coast. He also has fished. He has lobstered. He has worked as a lobster dealer for 30 years.
Rice says lobstering remains a healthy and viable fishery in Maine, despite the financial squeeze lobstermen face right now. "But we're losing our access to that resource and the money that it could put into our local economy," he says.
Lobstermen and fishermen are losing prime waterfront to work from. Maine is moving on a number of fronts to try to reverse this trend, which threatens to change radically the character of its 142 coastal communities. The state has been "in the forefront in protecting working waterfront," says Schmidt.
In 2005 and again in 2007, Maine voters passed bond referendums authorizing a total of $5 million for grants to buy waterfront or development rights to waterfront to keep it in use or put it to use for commercial fishing. In November, voters will be asked to pass a $10 million natural resources bond referendum, which includes another $2 million to recapitalize the working waterfront grant program.
"This has become a model that other states around the country are looking at and considering," says Hugh Cowperthwaite, fisheries project director for CEI Inc., a non-profit community development corporation that administers the grants.
So far, grants have been awarded to set aside and help develop waterfront for 19 projects, including $340,000 for the 28-member Port Clyde Fisherman's Cooperative, which maintains a wharf and landing for lobstermen, a fuel dock, bait processing plant and parking on a 3/4-acre lot in Port Clyde Harbor in St. George.
A parcel doesn't have to be dedicated to commercial fishing exclusively to qualify for a grant. At Holbrook's Wharf in Harpswell, the Holbrook Community Foundation - a 501(c)3 organization created to "keep Holbrook working" - received a $300,000 grant for a 3/4-acre mixed-use property, including a commercial fishing wharf for up to 10 boats, a snack bar, historic house with two apartments, a general store, a second dock for pleasure boats, and two moorings.
"We can help make it work," says Cowperthwaite, and keep a piece of waterfront working. "That's what it's all about. So many of these communities are small. Fishing is their primary source of income. It's so important."
Grant applicants must present a business plan and show they intend to reinvest in the property. "This is really an economic development program," he says.
Maine also offers tax breaks for working waterfront, defined as waterfront at least half of which is devoted to supporting commercial fishing. Land that qualifies is assessed for tax purposes at its current, rather than its most profitable, use.
The Island Institute, a membership-based community development organization focused on the Gulf of Maine, started mapping the waterfront of the state's 142 coastal communities and now has maps showing points of public and private saltwater access for each town and village, including boat landings, municipal rights of way, boatyards and marinas, and fishing docks. The maps identify 1,555 points of saltwater access, but only 29 percent are protected by water-dependent zoning, and only 62 of the 81 prime access points - those with parking, all-tide access and on-site fuel - currently support commercial fishing activities.
Fifteen percent of the 142 communities reported having no public access to the water. Communities have been encouraged to use the maps to balance multiple uses on their waterfront and act to protect and preserve commercial fishing access.
A number of research and community development organizations are working to strengthen and diversify Maine's fisheries, help them operate in a sustainable way - in both harvesting and marketing their catch - and reduce Maine watermen's reliance on lobster.
"In the eastern Gulf of Maine, the groundfish have not rebounded after 20 years of depleted fishing," says Veronica Young, assistant director of the Penobscot East Resource Center. "So now we are 95 percent dependent on lobstering. That's pretty vulnerable, though it is still one of the most productive fisheries in the country."
Both the Penobscot center and the Island Institute have been buying up groundfish permits - some of them costing up to $100,000 - and "banking" them for the future so when the fish come back all the permits won't be in the hands of big operators, and small-boat fishermen can get back into the business. In the meantime, these organizations are using the permits to go out and do research and try to find out what's happening with local fish stocks in the Gulf of Maine.
"We believe you need to understand all the separate ecologies along our coast to find out what's going on with the fish stocks," Young says. It's called "fine-scale management." And there is growing interest in turning management of local fish stocks over to local people and allowing only those with local permits to fish local waters, which is how lobster is already managed in Maine.
"In Maine they've got zone management of lobster," says Bonnie McCoy, a Rutgers University human ecologist who studies fishing communities. "It has turned out to be fairly good in some ways." But she has seen better.
McCoy has written about fishing cooperatives in Mexico's Baja that are given exclusive rights to fish for a species in an area. Members of the cooperative vote on policy, develop management schemes, open and close the fishery, do their own research with support of fisheries biologists - and their own enforcement.
"They make all the decisions about how they're going to manage the fishery, who's going to fish and when," she says. "It's a very, very good model for fisheries." And it's one that has a precedent in Mexico in agricultural cooperatives. It is a departure from the American tradition of keeping the "commons" open to all comers.
"Access to diversified fisheries - we need it and we don't have it," says Rob Snyder, vice president of programs at the Island Institute, in an e-mail to Soundings about the challenges facing Maine fishermen. "We are highly dependent on lobster. The fish stocks and the infrastructure to support landing them continue to diminish."
Besides banking groundfish permits and promoting local fisheries research, the Island Institute is testing new business models for marketing catch. The Port Clyde Fresh Catch cooperative has about a dozen vessels catching haddock, flounder, cod, pollock, hake and shrimp and delivering it fresh - and direct - to local customers who subscribe to shares of the catch during the season for a set price.
Similar to a farmer's market, it is called community-supported fisheries. It gets fishermen's neighbors to support their local fishery, cuts out wholesalers, eliminates transportation costs to faraway markets and delivers fresh fish at prices that are profitable for small operators.
"You sell a large percentage of your volume locally," says Penobscot center's Aaron Dority. "You sell direct to consumers and increase the price to fishermen."
Island Institute's Snyder says his organization also is looking for ways to stabilize fuel costs for fishermen and develop less costly ways of catching fish and lobster.
Working waterfront initiatives
Springuel says it helps for other traditional waterfront users - recreational boaters, marinas and boatyards, boatbuilders, and tour boat, ferry and schooner operators - and some new ones like aquaculture and kayaking businesses to work together with fishermen to share waterfront. Mixed-use
development can save working waterfront that couldn't survive carrying fisheries alone, she says.
Preservation of working waterfront "seems to be back up on the radar," says Ann Breen, director of The Waterfront Center in Washington, D.C., an organization that promotes waterfront redevelopment. "It's a hot topic."
Breen says every waterfront is different. When the Monterey, Calif., sardine fishery collapsed after World War II, the city's Cannery Row was transformed into a tourist attraction with a world-class aquarium, shops and boutiques, restaurants and art galleries. "Fishing just died in Monterey," she says. "There was nothing left to protect."
Each community has to decide for itself if the fishery is viable, if the boatyards and bait houses and public docks are viable. "If the boatyards and fisheries are viable, we would say try to hang on to that working waterfront because it provides jobs and is part of the character of the place," she says. If not, communities might want to consider the approach Monterey took.
It's a complex problem, she says, but one worth coming to grips with. In some places, like Gloucester, Mass., fishing docks share the waterfront with residential condominiums. She says her organization's principal concern is preserving public access to the waterfront, whether it be for tourists, local residents, commercial fishermen or pleasure boaters. "It is a public good, and once you foreclose access you might not get it back for 100 years," she says.
Worried about the loss of working waterfront, a handful of states have started looking at the problem - North Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Maryland, Florida and Oregon among them, says Maine Sea Grant's Springuel. Even Congress, which has been snowed under by health-care reform this year, is thinking about what needs to be done.
If adopted, the Keep America's Waterfront Act of 2009 (H.R. 2548) would allocate $225 million over four years for state grants to buy development rights to working waterfront and keep that waterfront in use for commercial and recreational fishing, tourism, aquaculture, boatbuilding and repair, and working docks, wharfs, marinas and ramps. Sponsored by Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), the legislation states that water-dependent commercial activities - "the economic and cultural heart of many of our coastal communities" - are threatened because so much working waterfront is converting to private residential use.
That trend has been interrupted by the recession, but the hiatus is temporary, says Schmidt. She estimates that the 19 working waterfront projects funded under Maine's grant program have protected 40 acres of waterfront and helped preserve 1,000 fishing industry jobs. "For a state like Maine, where fishing is disproportionately important, that's huge," she says.
None of these initiatives is likely to get Lela Anderson's job back tomorrow, but they might help fisheries and other businesses that depend on access to the water regain lost ground in the years ahead and help preserve the way of life of towns and villages like Gouldsboro and Prospect Harbor. "Every good thing comes to an end, right?" Anderson says.
Maybe it doesn't have to, if folks really work at keeping their waterfronts working. "I guess if you accept the fact that we are through packing sardines in this area, I'm optimistic," says Rice. "I'm optimistic about turning this plant into something else to employ people."
And keeping that piece of waterfront working.
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This article originally appeared in the July 2010 issue.