“The Maine islands that depend on lobster fishing to maintain their year round populations will slowly die if they continue to lose lobster licenses,” said Swan’s Island native Sonny Sprague.

Swan’s, the Cranberries, Frenchboro, and the other islands that lie in Lobster Zone B, a zone with closed entry, require five fishermen to retire their licenses before one on the waiting list can get his or hers, despite applicants having gone through the state’s apprentice program and fulfilling all its requirements. This rule has created a problem that may not have been considered when the lobster zones were created.

Lobstering is of paramount importance as a source of income to islanders. According to Maine’s Department of Marine Resources (DMR), 18 percent of islanders hold lobster licenses compared to only 1 percent of mainlanders. On Matinicus and Frenchboro, 60 to 70 percent of the island population holds lobster licenses, according to the Island Institute’s 2009 Island Indicators report.

One such island, Little Cranberry, has two young fishermen on the waiting list as opposed to veterans like Dan Fernald, who first got his license in 1972, when both Little and Great Cranberries each had seven or eight people fishing lobster. At that time, Fernald said both islands had vibrant year-round populations.

“Great Cranberry never got the surge of young people staying on the island that Little Cranberry did in the 70s,” Fernald recalled. He said Little Cranberry’s population surged because some summer boys decided before or after college to stay on the island and earn their livings as sternmen. At that time they were able to get their licenses and do so. Fernald said that influx of young people wanting to live and work year round on the island “revitalized Little Cranberry” unlike Great Cranberry, which, he said has only one fisherman left and no prospect of another taking his place. Great Cranberry, he said, “is now an island without an active year round fishing population.”

Outside of the few carpenters, electricians and plumbers, needed on any relatively small island, though, the only career option for unbridged-island youth other than Internet-based work is fishing. “Right now on Little Cranberry, there are two young fishermen who actually have their names on the list to get licenses in Zone B,” Fernald said in early January.

He said there are probably four others who would put their names on the list if it weren’t so discouraging. With a probable wait of 15 or 20 years, he said, “It just means the year-round island population will die because really the only thing for young people to do out there to earn a living is to fish, particularly on the unbridged islands.”

Unfortunately, as summer people have bought up properties and in so doing raised property prices, young Islanders trying to earn their livings as sternmen cannot afford to buy property, build, and start a family, the life blood of an island’s year round population.

In addition, living on an island costs more than living on the mainland. On Little Cranberry, Fernald said property goes for $50,000 an acre and building on an island costs 20 to 30 percent more than building on the mainland because everything from building materials to crew must be brought over on the ferry as well as paying a crew traveling time to and fro on the ferry. Costs go on and on.

Kate Hotchkiss, of Isle au Haut, sterned for Jason Barter until October when the price of lobster dropped, helps with her husband’s building business during the off-season. She said that her island electric bill comes to 7 times more than it would be if she lived on the mainland. Food is 1 1/2 times as expensive; she pays $4.80/gal. for gas; and island fishermen have to steam to the mainland to sell their catch and then back home, the only advantage there being that they can buy boat fuel at the mainland price.

Hotchkiss agreed with Fernald that sternman’s pay is barely enough to support them on an island. Isle au Haut has 22 fishermen including apprentices and students out of a population of 50. She and other sternmen who have gone through the Apprentice Program and put in many hours towards becoming eligible for their lobster licenses feared their effort might have been in vain if the fishermen in Zone C voted to close entry. Zone C met January 15 to vote on the issue and by a vote of 5 for and 5 against, with the eleventh member of the council absent, Zone C remains open, the last of the states lobster zones to remain so. “The vote,” Council member Frank Gotwals, of Stonington, explained, “was to adopt an entry-exit ratio for issuing new licenses, which would lead to a waiting list.”

If that final zone had closed, Hotchkiss said licensed apprentices who had logged less than 92 percent of the thousand hours needed to apply for their commercial lobster license would probably have been out of luck. They would have been put on a waiting list of such length that they might have had to leave the island to earn their livings.

“A Zone C closure would have been devastating because there would have been no reasonable way to bring young people into the island fishery,” Hotchkiss said. “In one generation this would likely have meant the demise of Isle au Haut lobster fishing, the cornerstone of our economy.”

This would have been tragic for the island. But Isle au Haut would have been just one more example of what is happening on other islands.

According to Lobster Zone F chairman Jeff Putnam, of Chebeague Island, those in Casco Bay, Zone F, including Cliff and Long Island, have to retire 4,000 tags before a new license can be issued for an initial 300 tags, effective for the first time in January 2009. The owner of the new license can then build up the number of tags at a rate of 100 a year.

Putnam said, “We all are afraid of the long-term sustainability of an island community if people can’t go lobstering on the island.” He explained the problem of young Islanders who leave one world and come back to a new one of lobster regulations, saying, “If somebody comes back from school and they’ve let their license go, there’s no reason to come back to the island. They can’t wait for the 10 years or whatever to get their license again.”

Fernald, of Little Cranberry’s Zone B, agreed, “There are so many factors coming at young people from all sides,” he said: “the ability to earn a decent living would give them a chance to compete for the land and to buy a house.”

Despite Zone C’s decision to keep its entry-exit ratio open, that chance-to be able to earn enough money to support young Islanders so they can stay and keep their island’s year round population alive and vibrant-remains threatened by the indefinite wait many young island fishermen must endure.