ROCKLAND — The on-again, off-again sardine packing contest at the Maine Lobster Festival is off again, probably for good.
John Melquist, plant manager at Rockland’s Port Clyde Sardine Co., said Monday morning that the firm was ready, willing and able to participate in the festival event, and even put up a little prize money. “But no one else seemed to be interested,” Melquist said.
There was talk about an international contest between Rockland packers and packers from Connors Bros. in Canada. Connors Bros. owns Port Clyde. But the Canadian officials had no interest.
The attitude of the industry is often hard to understand, said Ronald Wilson of the Maine Sardine Council. When Rita Willey of Port Clyde took on all comers and won several contests, the publicity spread to the Boston Globe, and even to television shows “Real People” and the Johnny Carson Show, where Willey beat Carson hands down. Most industries would kill for such free publicity.
The interest in the packing contest has declined along with the fortunes of the industry. The industry has eight plants left in Maine with about 1,000 employees. Even 10 years ago the industry employed 2,000 people. More and more plants are going to mechanization to replace the factory jobs.
In past years mothers and daughters used to pack side by side at the sardine canneries. Fish are plucked from the assembly line and flying fingers clip the heads and tails, then pack the fish in waiting cans. The faster the packer, the more money they brought home.
Today the average packer can make $5 to $6 an hour. The owners of really fast fingers can make $9 to $10 an hour. Other simply make minimum wage.
Port Clyde didn’t start packing until Monday morning. The problem was the size of the fish available locally. The local sardine catch was simply too big, so smaller fish were trucked in from Canada. Now that the cannery has started, it probably will be open until February.
Then the problem won’t be the fish, but finding enough packers to work. Today there is too much competition for workers. “You can make some money here, but it’s tough and it’s dirty,” Melquist said. Many times workers will collect welfare instead of working. “We can’t attract the young people like we used to. In February, we will have more fish than we can use,” he said.
About 120 workers were at the waterfront plant Monday morning. That has been the average work force in recent years, although it was much higher at the peak of the industry, Melquist said.