The intensely fish smell of herring has been the smell of money for generations of workers in Maine who have snipped, sliced and packed the small, silvery fish into billions of cans of sardines on their way to Americans' lunch buckets and kitchen cabinets.
For the past 135 years, sardine canneries have been as much a part of Maine's small coastal villages as the thick Down East fog. It's been estimated that more than 400 canneries have come and gone along the state's long, jagged coast.
The lone survivor, the Stinson Seafood plant here in the eastern Maine town of Prospect Harbor, shuts down this week after a century in operation. It is the last sardine cannery not just in Maine, but in the United States.
Lela Anderson, 78, has worked in sardine canneries since the 1940s and was among the fastest in sardine-packing contests that were held back in the day. Her packing days are over; now she's a quality-control inspector looking over the bite-sized morsels in can after can that passes by her.
Once considered an imported delicacy, sardines now have a humble reputation. They aren't one species of fish. Instead, sardines are any of dozens of small, oily, cold-water fish that are part of the herring family that are sold in tightly packed cans.
The first U.S. sardine cannery opened in Maine in 1875, when a New York businessman set up the Eagle Preserved Fish Co. in Eastport.
These days most of the canning is automated and the fish are cut with machines, though still packed by hand. The Stinson packers are all women because they are thought to have stronger backs and better dexterity than men, according to plant manager Peter Colson.
Inside the spacious Stinson plant, dozens of workers in hairnets, aprons and gloves sort, pack and cook the herring that stream along flumes and conveyors. The fish are blanched in a 208-degree steamer for 12 minutes and later, cooked in sealed cans at about 250 degrees for 35 minutes.
Ear plugs muffle the cacophony of clanking cans, rattling conveyor belts, rumbling motors and hissing steam. A fishy smell hangs in the air. Outside, a billboard-sized sign of a fisherman in yellow oilskins holding an oversized can of Beach Cliff sardines, the plant's primary product, serves as reminder of Maine's long sardine history.
Colson has been in the sardine business for 38 years. He got his first job as a youngster at another cannery, an hour's drive away, where his father was the manager.
"This is it. We don't have any more," Colson said as he watched workers swiftly pack cans in assembly line fashion. "It's not easy seeing this go."
Peaked in 1950Production at Maine canneries has been sliding since peaking at 384 million cans in 1950. Faced with declining demand and a changing business climate, the plants went by the wayside one by one until, five years ago, the Stinson plant was the last one standing. Last year it produced 30 million cans.
Still, it came as a surprise to employees when Bumble Bee Foods, which has owned the facility since 2004, announced in February that the plant would close because of steep cuts in the amount of herring fishermen are allowed to catch in the Northeast. The New England Fishery Management Council set this year's herring quota at 91,000 metric tons down from 180,000 tons in 2004 because of the uncertain scientific outlook of the region's herring population.
Even without the quota cuts, the plant was under pressure from shrinking consumer demand, increased foreign competition from countries like China and Thailand with lower labor costs, and low prices on the retail market.