It’s no secret that times are tough for Maine lobstermen.

New figures just came out from the state Department of Marine Resources (DMR) that dramatically show how bad things are.

The good news is that the lobster resource is strong: preliminary 2009 lobster landings were the highest ever recorded, at 75,595,534 pounds. The bad news is that the value of this catch decreased by $23 million compared to 2008.

Even more striking is how much the value of lobster has gone down in the last five years.

Every year since 2005, the total value of lobster landed has declined from a high of $317.9 million to this year’s estimate of  $221.7 million. The value has gone down independent of the amount of lobster landings.

How do these figures translate for individual lobstermen? Preliminary estimates for 2009 show that the average statewide price paid to lobstermen (the boat price) was $2.93 per pound-the lowest statewide average since 1998. With these dire figures, it is no wonder lobstermen around the state are struggling.

The crash of the lobster industry has taken a tremendous toll statewide, but it is felt even more on islands, where lobstering is a mainstay of island communities. Almost 20 percent of Maine’s islanders hold lobster licenses, compared to 1 percent of Mainers overall, according to “Island Indicators 2008: A Status Report on Maine’s Year-round Island Communities,” published by the Island Institute. That number varies by island, but on Frenchboro and Matinicus, 60 to 70 percent of the island population holds lobster licenses.

Island communities are often delicately balanced between success and failure. A hit to a major source of island income, such as lobstering, has a ripple effect on the entire island economy. And one of the biggest challenges on most islands is the lack of affordable housing for year-round residents.

But since the price of homes has also declined, why can’t islanders take advantage of this economic trend?

It’s not that simple. Housing prices on islands, if they do decline, do not decrease at anywhere near the same rate as occurs on the mainland. So the current real estate crash does not create the same opportunities for affordable housing on islands, as it does on the mainland.

And with lobstering income down-the main source of economic activity on islands-that means many islanders have less money for housing.

A 2009 report demonstrates the extent of how island housing values outstrip those values on the mainland. Between 1970 and 2007, property values in Maine increased 2,000 percent, according to “An Analysis of Recent Economic History of Maine’s Island Communities,” prepared for the Island Institute by Planning Decisions Inc. of South Portland.

During that 40-year period, Casco Bay island communities had an increase in value of over 3,500 percent. On Downeast island communities, property values grew over 4,400 percent. Penobscot island communities’ saw their values increase over 5,500 percent.

Island housing organizations are fighting this trend. But the additional cost of creating new housing on islands means many of these groups have a gap between what is needed and how much money can be raised.

The Genesis Community Loan Fund estimates that island groups have about 50 units of affordable housing in the pipeline, with gap-funding needs that range between $20,000 and $400,000 per project.

So the passage last summer of an innovative housing bond could not have come at a better time for islands. About $9 million from this $30 million housing and jobs bond would be allocated without income restrictions or restrictions on the minimum number of units for a specific project.

This is crucial, because islands typically need projects smaller than federal guidelines require in order to obtain housing funds. And island real estate prices are so inflated compared to the mainland that island incomes are usually more than federal guidelines mandate.

Details of the program that will be set up to administer the $30 million in housing funds will emerge in the next few weeks.

Island housing groups were part of the coalition that advocated for these funds. They’re ready to help address this urgent problem on islands-they just need some help to get these projects moving.