Two years ago the state Legislature passed a law allowing a limited entry program for lobster licenses to be established on year-round Maine islands. LD1231: An Act To Protect the Long-term Viability of Island Lobster Fishing Communities, introduced by North Haven Rep. Hannah Pingree, arose in response to concerns among islanders that the ever-lengthening waiting list for a lobster license in the state’s lobster zones would preclude young people from making a living on their islands. Once in place, the limited entry program would allocate a number of licenses exclusively for island residents who wanted to fish.

In early June, Cliff Island, Chebeague Island and the Cranberry Isles became the first three island communities to obtain limited entry programs for lobster licenses. “It’s a sustainability issue,” said lobsterman Jeff Putnam of Chebeague. “Now young people can have a shot at staying on the island.”

Islanders had to spend many months threading their way through the regulatory process to get their respective programs approved by the state Department of Marine Resources. DMR regulations require that a minimum of three lobster license holders living on an island form a committee to begin the process of establishing a limited entry program. At least 10 percent of the license holders on the island had to sign a petition that outlined the program and the number of licenses proposed for that island. The petition then had to be presented to the appropriate zone council for review and comment.

Next, the DMR sent a referendum question to all licensed lobstermen on the island asking if they approved or disapproved of the proposed limited entry program. Two-thirds of those license holders had to vote in favor of the program for it to move on to the DMR commissioner for approval.

This process took time. Yet, when the final rulemaking hearings were held in June, much of the controversy surrounding the proposals had settled down. As Sarah Cotnoir, lobster zone council liaison at DMR, who attended the hearings in Ellsworth and Portland, noted, “The hearing in Ellsworth started at 6 and was done by 6:11 p.m. The one in Portland finished up at 6:10 p.m.”

While most lobstermen readily acknowledged that lobstering is the economic mainstay of many islands, some felt that setting aside a specific number of licenses for island residents entering the fishery was not fair. “On some islands, the school is healthy, they aren’t seeing a population drop, the status quo is okay,” said Willis Spear, a Yarmouth lobsterman. “We are against increased effort [in the Casco Bay area]. And it is unfair to the folks who are on the waiting list, who have been waiting for so long.”

On Islesford, one of the Cranberry islands, lobsterman Bruce Fernald sees the program as a lifesaver. “Many of us [island lobstermen] are in our late 50s or early 60s,” he said. “The way the zone councils are set up and the waiting lists, by the time someone gets a license, this place could be dead.” Islesford lobstermen sell their catch to the island’s lobster co-op, which needs a certain volume of lobster to stay afloat. Fernald worries if the co-op should falter, the island’s character would change irrevocably. “We need to keep the co-op going in order to keep the island from becoming just a retirement place,” he said.

Islesford, with 94 year-round residents, and Big Cranberry Island, with 40 year-round residents, will have 23 lobster licenses available specifically for island residents; Cliff Island, with a year-round population of 71, will have 12 licenses and Chebeague Island, with a year-round population of 341, will have 31 licenses. Swan’s Island, which also sent a limited entry proposal to its lobstermen, did not garner the two-thirds majority required to pass the referendum.

Melissa Waterman is the communications coordinator at the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.