The Maine sardine fishery, one of the most unique and successful maritime traditions, is dying. My work documents this passing way of life with a book of my black and white photographs combined with oral histories recorded with various participants from the sardine fishery. Scattered along the Maine coast, from Eastport to Portland, lie the remains of this once thriving fishing culture. The canneries were the heart of coastal economy. Today some lie as moldering shells, others have been converted to meet the changing needs of society, a few are vacant lots. In the harbors one can see the sardine carriers, some rotting hulls, others converted for new uses, a few still hauling. In the coastal communities one can seek out the soul of tradition, the people. Many are old now, gray-haired, some retired, others still working. Stories are told willingly and with pride, and in their language you can hear the voice of traditions. The stories are closely tied to the rhythms of nature, the weather, the tides, and the mysterious migration of fish.
At one time the seventh largest industry in Maine, with as many as seventy-five canneries operating, the sardine fishery employed thousands of factory workers, fishermen, and many others in support industries that proliferated to supply the canneries necessary goods such as boats, crates, and cans. However, since the 1950's improvements in fishing technology have led fisherman away from traditional self-sustaining methods, and this, combined with changes in American lifestyles, has led to a dramatic decline in the industry. An industry that once employed many now supports few, and of the former seventy five canneries only five remain.
Larger that its economic importance is the sardine fisheries' cultural heritage. Emanating from the canneries is a unique level of cooperation and interdependence that fostered tremendous pride, loyalty and camaraderie between the participants in this fishery. Capturing this spirit of tradition, as well creating a valuable historical document, is my project goal. I began by photographing the last days of operation at the Port Clyde cannery in Rockland, Maine. The cannery opened in 1943 and closed on May 30th 1997. The closing of the last cannery in Rockland, a city known throughout the state as a working waterfront, displaced 150 people and marked the end of an era when sardines were cut by hand. From the cannery I focused my efforts on documenting the traditional methods of fish capture: weirs and stop-seines. These are vanishing as quickly as the canneries. Since I began this project a cannery has closed, fishermen have sold their gear, and herring stocks continue to dwindle. The sardine fishery was once closely tied to nature. Though today much of this tradition has passed, in the few surviving canneries it lingers, and the remaining fisherman, not many in number, still go to sea, hoping for a trip of fish, while the old ones remember.