The final two months of 2004 saw fish processing plant closings in Atlantic Canada, ranging from Grand Manan in New Brunswick to Harbour Breton and Fortune in Newfoundland.

On Grand Manan, Connors Bros. announced in December the closing of its sardine plant, putting 162 people out of work, according to plant manager Dave Green. In Newfoundland, Fishery Products International announced the closing of its Harbour Breton plant, leaving 350 without jobs, and a few weeks later its Fortune plant, costing approximately another 350 jobs.

“We had our annual Christmas party put on by people here on the island,” said Green. “We got our Christmas turkeys and our add-on checks. The next morning I got a call that they would be closing the plant.”

Green added that the plant will close officially in April. “At that time, people will get a call back to the plant in Black’s Harbour, and it will be up to them whether they want to go or stay here on Grand Manan. Some people will be going, I understand.”

He also noted that Connors has already begun moving out some of the equipment.

Green, who’s been at the plant for more than 16 years, said his own plans are to stay on the island and to try to get another company to take over the plant. “That’s my goal — one or two firms have been looking at it, but there’s nothing definite yet. You know, a free ferry service would be a big help. We made a real good product here, and we could produce a case of sardines cheaper than any other plant.”

Klaus Sonnenberg, general manager of the Grand Manan Fishermen’s Association, said that he was worried about the quality of sardines if they’re processed in Black’s Harbour.

“We’ve always been known for producing a quality product,” he says. “Small fish, like sardines, have to be handled carefully to insure the highest quality, With the plant was on the island, the distance between the weirs and the plant was at most a half hour. Under the best circumstances, the trip to Black’s Harbour is at least two hours away. The sardines here have been good enough for me to have them for breakfast from time to time.”

“This is part of the life of Grand Manan,” Sonnenberg said. “The economic impact here is terrific. But it also has impact on people’s lives. Whole families worked there, some for several generations.”

Grand Manan Village Manager Andy Daggett described the Connors announcement as “a major shock, devastating.”

A statement from Chris Lischewski, Connors president and CEO, said, “Connors has been evaluating the economics of maintaining dual sardine facilities in Grand Manan and Black’s Harbour for many years. Today, the strength of the Canadian dollar and competition in the market place have made it imperative that we continue to reduce manufacturing costs to remain competitive. Our year-round Black’s Harbour cannery simply has excess capacity and the ability to produce sardines more cost-effectively than the seasonally-operating Grand Manan facility. Unfortunately, it no longer makes sense to keep both facilities open.”

In Newfoundland, the closing of the FPI Fortune plant on the heels of the Harbour Breton plant is “devastating,” according to Earle McCurdy, president of the Fish, Food and Allied Workers. But he quickly added that the Harbour Breton and Fortune plants are not dead issues. “We haven’t given up on either one, but it’s going to take action at both the provincial and federal government levels.”

As for the economic impact McCurdy said, “You don’t have to be a Ph.D. to determine the size of the impact.”