July 25, 2021

Cannery closings prompt Maine Sardine Council to downsize

WINTERPORT — The Maine Sardine Council, which has ensured the quality of Maine herring products for decades, has scaled down its operation because of last year’s closing of Port Clyde Canning Co. in Rockland.

Jeff Kaelin, the council’s executive director, reported this week that the closing last April of the half-century-old cannery owned by Connors Brothers of New Brunswick and other factors forced the council in November to close its quality control laboratory in Brewer. The lab and the council’s other functions were funded by the sardine canneries.

In November, Kaelin said the council sold its building in Brewer and three of the council’s four employees were let go. His position was retained and he is working out of his Winterport home.

“It was no longer cost-effective to operate a quality control program,” he said. “It is more cost-efficient for Stinson’s and the other canneries to do it in-house.”

Founded in 1951, the sardine council was established at a time when dozens of sardine-packing plants dotted the Maine coast. Its primary role was to promote canned sardines and other herring products and to develop markets.

In the mid-1950s, the council began overseeing quality control for the sardine packing plants. A quality control program was established at the Brewer facility. A sample from each cannery’s daily production was graded and given a score for its quality. The council’s costs were partially covered by the industry.

Over the years, the council and lab have continued to function despite a dramatic decline in the number of sardine canneries. With the closing of the Port Clyde plant, only five canneries remain. Stinson Seafood Co. owns and operates plants in Bath, Belfast and Prospect Harbor. L. Ray Packing Co. has a plant in Milbridge, and Lubec Packing Co. packs sardines under contract for Connors Brothers in New Brunswick.

A public entity, the council’s operating costs are covered wholly by the industry. Connors contributed one-third of those funds.

Kaelin said Stinson Seafood Co. has hired the council’s former food technologist to monitor the quality of its herring products. He said Maine’s other two canneries will also do in-house quality control.

In addition, Kaelin said all the companies’ processing operations will face greater scrutiny under the recently passed federal law mandating federal seafood inspections for safety and sanitation.

Kaelin said the council is reorganizing since its role has changed. He will continue promoting the herring industry’s products and advocating on its behalf when it comes to state and federal legislation. He said the council would continue to function as a public entity.

Kaelin said a bill has been submitted to the Legislature, defining its new role that no longer involves quality control of the herring industry’s products. The state Marine Resources Committee was scheduled to hear the bill Jan. 15, but the hearing was canceled due to the weather. A new date has not been set.

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