The effects of record-high oil prices have reverberated throughout coastal Maine.

This past year, the average price for a gallon of gasoline in Maine rose from $1.98 a gallon to $2.40, with a summertime spike to over $3. Heating oil similarly rose 53 cents per gallon, a thirty-five percent increase from the year before. Declining crude oil reserves and political instability in oil-producing nations drove worldwide crude oil prices up from a then-record $50 per barrel at the beginning of 2005 to around $60 now.

Charitable organizations have been attempting to help Mainers bridge the expanding price gap, but funding is tight. The Maine Sea Coast Mission in Bar Harbor has long had an emergency heating fuel fund, but this year the Mission upped the fund’s budget dramatically. Mission director Gary DeLong says many families in Hancock and Washington Counties had just enough money to buy heating oil at the old prices, but this year’s prices overwhelmed their budgets.

“Then you’ve got a disaster,” DeLong said.

The increased allocation to the oil fund forced the Mission to shut down several other charitable funds, including one to help low-income individuals with rent deposits.

DeLong says low-income individuals felt the pinch the most because they couldn’t afford to lock in lower heating oil prices through pre-buying programs.

“That’s really the luxury of those with disposable income,” DeLong said.

DeLong also believes lobstermen were disproportionately affected by rising gas prices; his fishing clients saw fuel costs jump from $4,000 to $7,000 in one season.

“What they do is so driven by fuel,” DeLong said.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that area lobstermen may be riding out the fuel crisis better than DeLong thinks, but the spiking prices have changed the way they do business. Veteran lobsterman Jim Hanscom of Bar Harbor says his fuel costs rose 25 percent, and bait and trap prices were similarly up.

“Everything in the country has gone up,” Hanscom said.

He believes a banner price year for lobsters will partly absorb the financial sting of rising operating costs, but he worries lobster fishermen will absorb the economic blow more than lobster buyers.

“We are on the low end of the spectrum,” he said.

Many lobster boat captains he knows chose not to fish over the winter because of the high price of gasoline. They felt the wintertime yields weren’t worth the cost. Hanscom decided to press on through the winter, however.

“I just go fishing as I always did and hope for the best,” he said.

Lobsterman Dan Lunt of Frenchboro slowed down his workweek to economize on fuel.

“We went from a three-day rotation to a four-day rotation,” he said. “It seemed to work out okay.”

He also opted to drive his boat slower this year to save on gas and oil. His sons, both lobstermen, did the same.

Dan’s wife, Linda, does the books for the family business. She says that while cost-cutting measures didn’t completely make up for the rise in fuel prices, lobster boat captains still make a good living. She feels fuel prices might have affected a commuting Wal-Mart minimum-wage earner more than her husband.

“They’re probably in worse shape than us,” she said. “We still have a lot to be grateful for.”

While the long-range oil forecast calls for continually-rising prices, the short-term outlook looks a bit better. Heating oil prices remained flat this winter and Maine’s heating oil reserves are 77 percent higher than in 2004. This is due both to the mild winter and to the creative economizing of Mainers, says Betsy Elder, senior planner with the state Office of Energy Independence and Security.

“People are doing everything they can do not to buy [heating oil],” she said.

Fuel assistance for Mainers has also come from an unlikely source, Venezuela. Like Massachusetts and Vermont, Maine has accepted an offer of reduced-priced heating oil from Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez through Venezuela’s nationalized oil company, Citgo.

Chavez is dealing directly with U.S. states to offer discount heating oil for low-income individuals at a discount of 40 percent. The move is an obvious snub to the U.S federal government and the Bush administration, which has been openly critical of Chavez’s leftist government.

Meanwhile, Maine state government is planning to move ahead with several programs to bring about immediate and long-term heating oil relief to Mainers in the coming years. This January, the legislature appropriated $5 million toward a state charitable fuel fund. Elder’s Energy Department will also initiate a million-dollar program to retrain building contractors in energy-efficient house design and construction. The program will also offer incentives for Maine homeowners to buy energy-efficient appliances and to renovate for improved heating efficiency.