My grandmother Edith Johnson Searles packed sardines in Lubec at a time when that prosperous town hosted 23 sardine (herring) packing plants. My grandfather, Henry Searles, was a native of Canada’s nearby Campobello Island, who moved across the sound to marry my grandmother and live with her in South Lubec. For a while, Henry was a fish inspector in those sardine packing plants.

Neither would have ever imagined a time when Maine would pack no sardines, in Lubec or anywhere else in the state. The plant where my grandmother worked is now a museum.

So when I learned of Joe Upton’s memoir of the herring fishery, published initially in 1986 and republished in 2015 by Tilbury House in Thomaston, I grabbed a copy, eager to learn more about what happened to these fish and this industry.

Herring Nights is a gripping tale, full of hardnosed hardworking fishermen, reveling in a life that kept them at sea, and (sometimes) paid the bills. And Joe’s book includes the women like my grandmother who took those sardines and packed them for shipping all around the world.

“When there were canneries up and down the coast,” he writes, “there were thousands of cutters – women that worked with scissors, trimming the herring, putting them into cans. Then when the foreign fleets came and the herring disappeared, the canneries closed, and the women often found better, easier work. And now, when at last a few more fish had come back to the coast, the canneries couldn’t find enough women to pack the fish and were forced to operate at reduced capacity,” he reports.

That might have been when my grandmother took a job as the receptionist for Lubec’s physician, a job she enjoyed for many years. Probably easier than packing sardines, too!

If you read nothing more than Chapter 8 in Joe’s book, it would be well worth the purchase price. In that chapter the grim reality of herring fishing is presented. A huge group of herring had been trapped by the fishermen’s nets in a cove, enough fish to make their season and pay their bills, but the number of herring was so large that they threatened to bust the net and escape, something the fish tried to do throughout the night. But the nets held.

But then a group of whales arrived. They were fishing for herring too.  Here’s how Joe describes it: “Deep in the night, something woke me up, and I went out on the deck. It was very dark; the sky had clouded over. But the water was firing brilliantly, my anchor line clearly outlined in the tide. And then, out beyond the net in the cove, I saw the odd thing. I was about to hit the bunk again, for the night air was cool on my skin, but there was something out there. It caught my eye, and I looked long and hard.

“It was the whales again, clearly visible, their bodies shimmering, twitching, luminous – four or five of them moving back and forth slowly in front of the cove and the net. And behind the twine, the fish were stirring again, where before they had been quiet, the water dark. They seemed to be waiting for something, the fish and the whales both. That was the strange part. But I was cold and tired, and after a while I went back to the pilot house and slept. I woke early to lie in the bunk, half awake, trying to remember what it was that seemed so unusual. Then I sat up suddenly; it was the silence.

“Before there had been gulls and cormorants around the net all the time, diving and crying, fishing for the herring. But that morning, there was only a hushed stillness… The fish were gone.” The net was ripped, probably by a whale although it might have been by the herring themselves.

Joe wraps up the story with this sad conversation between a father and son. “Oh, we had ‘em, Dad, we had ‘em.’ With little success, Tim, Peter’s boy, fought back the tears. ‘Nope.’ Peter looked at the dory, half full of twine now as the men worked their way across the cover in an unbroken rhythm. ‘You never have ‘em until they’re in the carrier, headed up the bay…”

In Chapter Ten, I learned more about the demise of the herring fishermen. On an early September evening, their herring scouting airplane “had spotted a good bunch of fish, but by the time we arrived, the ‘Gloucester boys’ had appeared out of nowhere, six or seven large steel boats, great noisy pools of light in the darkness. They had giant nets, half a mile long and two hundred and fifty feet deep, and they could pump millions of pounds of fish aboard. It was sickening sight.”

While the locals shared their herring bounty with each other, the huge boats from Gloucester, Massachusetts, did not. “Instead of offering what was left to the remaining fleet,” Joe reports, “they’d just open their net, and the dead fish would sink to the bottom, wasted, hundreds of thousands of pounds at a whack.”

As if this wasn’t enough, the sardine plants started paying the fishermen only for what the canneries said they used rather than what they took. “The fishermen didn’t have much choice,” wrote Joe. “Most of them owed money to the canneries, and besides, there was no one else to buy their fish, except for a little shoestring operations like ours which never really amounted to much.”

Please don’t think that Joe regretted anything he did to become a herring fisherman. “It was a power that reached out, caused me to buy a boat I had seen only once before. And then to spend all the money, borrow even more. It was a power that brought strangers down to the boat again and again, lending us stuff, giving us stuff, in that improbable chain of events that had brought us here.

“And once we got to Vinalhaven, anything could have stopped us. We were on the thinnest of shoestrings; another boat had the market sewed up tight. I had put the entire boat together – wiring, plumbing, hydraulics – with only the shakiest concept of how it should be done. And it had worked flawlessly.

Joe added an epilogue to the book when Tilbury published it. “I didn’t know in 1977 that this book would become a glimpse into a vanished way of life,” he wrote. “When I took the 70-foot sardine carrier Amaretto to Vinalhaven that summer almost 40 years ago, I found myself in a fishery so well attuned to its community that it seemed certain to continue forever.”

In the final paragraphs, he points out the possibility of more trouble for hardworking lobster fishermen, currently prospering. But as Joe notes, “What clouds the future is something the fishermen have no control over: a slow but persistent ocean warming that seems to be moving the most productive fishing areas progressively eastward. As one lobsterman put it in 2014, ‘Just look in the fishing paper: All the big boats being built now are for Jonesport and further east.”

“It’s great that the lobster fishery has been able to take up the slack as the other inshore fisheries dwindled. Still, one suspects that many fishermen, even today, would choose the days when you made your living from several species rather than just one. For truly, today, the survival of Maine’s fishing villages as we know them depends on King Lobster.”

As I read Joe Upton’s wonderful book, subtitled, “Remembering a Lost Fishery,” memories flooded my mind of Nana Searles. My grandfather Henry died of a heart attack before I ever got to know him, but Nana was a big presence in my life. She never talked much about her sardine packing days – they were well behind her by the time I was born. And now I have a much better idea of what that was all about.

It was about working hard, prospering from the bounty of the ocean, and living in close-knit caring communities. It was our past, and we can only hope, our future. And let’s hope that our grandchildren won’t ever have to read a book, Lobster Days, Remembering a Lost Fishery.

George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal...