SWAN’S ISLAND — At age 31, with 15 years of lobster fishing experience under his belt, Zeke Freelove is betting he won’t be able to get a lobster fishing license until he’s 50.

That’s because of the state’s limited-entry system, which leaves aspiring fishermen on waiting lists for years.

Freelove moved to Swan’s Island when he was 17, married an “island girl,” bought a house, joined the volunteer fire department and became active in other civic activities.

As required by law, to get a lobster license he apprenticed with an established lobster fisherman—in this case, his father-in-law. When he graduated from the apprenticeship program, he signed up on a waiting list for all would-be license-holders in Zone B. (The state’s lobster fishery is divided into seven management zones, each governed by an industry council that has some degree of autonomy in regulating that zone’s fishery.)

Eight years ago, Freelove was No. 26 on the waiting list. Today, he’s No. 16. He is unhappy with the glacial pace of moving to the top spot, which would allow him, finally, to get his own license rather than serve as sternman.

For those on the mainland in Zone B, the slow pace toward a license is a nuisance. But for those on a small island community, it could mean the end of a way of life, said Freelove and fellow fisherman Eric Staples. There are just not a lot of other career options here, they said.

Staples is a fisherman about Freelove’s age. He’s had his lobster license since he was 18, and never had to deal with the waiting list. That’s because he had a student license, which required him to go through the apprentice program as a child and made him eligible to obtain his commercial license if he purchased it before he turned 18. The state made this provision for youngsters in recognition of the fishery as a family way of life.

Staples supports the idea of an island entry program, separate from the zone’s.

“We’re losing lobster licenses and not getting them back,” Staples said. “It’s starting to be a problem. It’s going to be a huge problem quickly.”

The same is true for other year-round islands, which is why, in 2009, the state established an island-only limited-entry program allowing islands to establish waiting lists separate from the general zone.

The new law was enacted “to protect the long-term viability of island lobster fishing communities,” the Department of Marine Resources said at the time. The law aims “to maintain a number of lobster licenses appropriate for the needs of their island community and the local lobster resource.”

In Zone B, lobster fishermen on the Cranberry Isles voted to join the program.

Cliff and Chebeague islands in Zone F, and Monhegan in Zone D, also opted in. The rule set the number of island resident lobster licenses for Chebeague at 31, Cliff at 12, Monhegan at 17, and Cranberry at 23.

The subject remains alive and well on Swan’s Island.


Ken Lemoine Jr., Swan’s Island’s representative on the Zone B Council, said the island’s fishermen twice voted not to go with the program, the most recent vote held this past spring.

Ballots were sent to Swan’s Island’s 72 lobster fishermen, who were asked if they supported “establishing a Swan’s Island limited-entry program allowing for up to 72 commercial lobster licenses to be issued to Swan’s Island residents annually.”

There were 49 responses, with 22 saying yes and 27 no.

The state sets a two-year term before the matter may go to the vote again. For Swan’s Island, that means two years from the date the ballots were due, April 17.

Being on the general zone waiting list means the island seldom gets a new license-holder, Lemoine said.

“It’s definitely shrinking the number of fishermen, and that’s the backbone of the community,” he said, adding that he opposes limited entry all together. “These people have got to work. They can’t work at Walmart. There’s not a lot to do out here.”

There are currently seven Swan’s Island residents on the Zone B waiting list, most listed since 2005 and 2006. There are 59 people on the list all together. The number of new licenses to be awarded is calculated yearly. In Zone B, five fishermen must retire before one new license can be issued.

A member of the island’s trap limit committee, Staples said it’s important to find a level of licenses that works for the island. He noted there’s also a demographics problem to consider. Most fishermen now are 50 to 70 years old, and not a lot of students are entering the fishery.

“There’s carpentry, which is not a viable option all the time. That work comes and goes,” Staples said. “There’s a handful of small opportunities, but nothing to make a good living on and raise a family. There’s a couple of guys my age who moved here out of college, worked on the water for a few years, then realized they weren’t going to be able to get a license. You see young families that can’t stay—and they want to.”

Freelove said it’s time for a change.

“This island is going to deplete itself if it doesn’t keep up,” he said. “I’m highly considering this being my last season. I’ve got to chase a career at some point. At 17, I chased this as my career. If I’d worked at Walmart, in 15 years, I could have been a manager. Here, there’s no room for promotion.”