Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Sardine Museum and Herring Hall of Fame

Seal Cove, Grand Manan
July 9, 2010
We were searching for a geocache in historic Seal Cove, a fish processing ghost town, when we saw the sign next to an open door in one of the weathered fish barns--“Sardine Museum and Herring Hall of Fame.” How could we resist?

As soon as we walked in the door, we smelled the smoking fish. There were some small fillets (pronounced fill-etts with the accent on the first syllable around here) smoking in a little oven, but most of the aroma came from the walls and ceiling of this herring smoking shed, and the tens of thousands of well-used herring sticks stacked neatly against a wall, ready to be used again if the smoked herring business here were ever to be revived.

This museum had no labels, just a few locals hanging around willing to answer questions. Valerie recently graduated from high school on the island, and her father worked here in the smoke shed before the herring plant closed down about ten years ago. She explained to us how each stick was threaded in the mouth and out the gill of about ten herring, then the loaded stick was passed hand to hand up into the rafters to be placed in many rows to dry, similar to the way tobacco is hung to dry. Evenly spaced fires of maple sawdust were kept burning beneath the herring for about four weeks. They used sawdust to make a smoke, not flame, for flavor and to keep away the flies. The men would rotate the fish from top to bottom frequently—so that all the fish in the batch were smoked evenly by the end of the four weeks curing time.

When they were done drying, the fish fillets were sent to the processing area, where women would trim and pack them to be shipped off, mostly to Caribbean Islands where folks had a taste for this sort of thing. Just about all the population of Seal Cove was involved in some way in fishing or processing the herring—either in dried or sardine form.

This museum was the inspiration of Michael Zimmer, an architect who moved to the island and bought up several of the abandoned fish processing sheds. He died before bringing his museum to fruition, but not before making a movie about himself and his vision entitled “Stranger from Away.” We watched the movie (set up in his bedroom), and were impressed by both his creativity and his ego. One of his very creative moves was to have an aluminum boat custom-made in the shape of a large sardine can with the lid rolled back. He put a little motor on the back and, of course, got a lot of attention when he tooled around the harbor in it. The boat now hangs over the door to the museum.

In his movie, he talks about his brainstorm for naming the museum—“Call it the Sardine Museum and Herring Hall of Fame—that’ll pull ‘em in off the highway. You can’t drive by a sign like that.” It worked for us.

After we were done touring the museum and I was signing the guest book, Dick disappeared on a photo safari. I had just about given up hope of finding him when I heard him calling down to me from an open loft door in one of the fish sheds. He had been photographing the shed with a young woman painting lobster trap floats visible up in the loft, and she invited him up for a look-see. By the time I found him, he was up there with Megan, the float painter; Valerie, our guide; and another one of their friends. They were enjoying answering his questions about life on the island. The lobster shed was Megan’s dad’s, and she was repainting his floats, as she does every year. Her grandfather’s shed is next to her dad’s, and her uncle has a shed a few doors down. Even though the sardine factory has closed down, whole families are still involved in fishing in Seal Cove.

In fact, whole families are involved in fishing all over this island. We have seen herring weirs in coves on all sides of the island. The weirs are labyrinths of pilings driven into the sea floor and strung with nets at the top half. They catch herring on evenings when the tide is high, since herring swim near the surface at night. (Sardines are little herring, by the way, at least around here.) The winter storms are violent, so every year, the fishermen have to repair and rebuild their weirs. We have watched them bobbing about in the waves and wind stringing nets, and we have seen their pilings—slender straight birch and pine tree trunks—on the dock waiting to be set and strung.
Big sea impoundments for salmon aquaculture lie offshore.

And, there are also lobster fishermen, though judging from the many idle traps and floats lying around, we wonder how many are actually still making a living catching lobsters hereabouts. We did enjoy the fruits of the lobstermen’s labors on our last evening at The Marathon Inn, when they threw a big lobster dinner for their guests. We had to reserve our spot in advance so that the innkeepers could get their order to the lobster boat in the morning. Caught in the morning, eaten in the evening—can’t beat that for lobster freshness. YUM!

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