Despite unique challenges, year-round Maine islands exhibit many bright spots, report finds

This April 16, 1997 file photo shows a lobster boat heading out of Vinalhaven Harbor, in Vinalhaven, Maine.
Pat Wellenbach | AP
This April 16, 1997 file photo shows a lobster boat heading out of Vinalhaven Harbor, in Vinalhaven, Maine.
Posted May 24, 2012, at 5:11 p.m.
Last modified May 24, 2012, at 6:39 p.m.

ROCKLAND, Maine — Investing in the education of their children is the single most important action that Maine islands with year-round populations have taken during the past decade, according to a report released Thursday.

The Island Institute, a nonprofit organization in Rockland, issued its third in a series of reports titled “Island Indicators.” The Island Institute also issued reports in 2006 and 2008.

“The picture that emerges from the trends we have analyzed is that, although the Maine islands continue to have real challenges such as aging populations, declining school enrollments, limited employment opportunities and an elevated overall cost of living, we see some important bright spots,” according to the overview of the 2012 Island Indicators report.

The Great Recession had a silver lining for the islands, according to the report, by reducing the cost of housing and making it more affordable for residents.

The lobster industry is doing well with a healthy resource and robust sales, the Island Indicators stated.

“But perhaps the single most important thing islanders have done during the past decade is to have invested successfully in the education of their students, and this among all other factors, bodes well for the future,” the report states.

Rob Snyder, executive vice president for the Island Institute, said that the report can be used by the organization to support the islands, such as when seeking philanthropic gifts from other organizations or when testifying before a government body on a public policy matter.

Snyder said the Institute uses the report to determine its priorities. He said for instance that the new report would naturally lead to focusing on education and strengthening schools. He said Thursday that strengthening schools would attract young families and help build island populations.

The populations of the 15 islands with year-round residents have remained relatively stable. The total year-round populations of the 15 islands was 4,433 in the 2010 U.S. census. This is a decrease of 54 people from the 2000 census but 240 more than the 1990 census.

More than half of those year-round residents live on islands in Penobscot Bay, according to the report. Vinalhaven has the greatest population of any Maine island with 1,165 residents. Peaks Island, located off Portland, has the second most residents at 864.

The census information also finds that the median age of islanders is greater than Maine as a whole. Maine has the oldest median population of any state.

The median age in the United States is 37 years old. In Maine, the median age is 43 years old. Vinalhaven and North Haven have median ages of 45, according to the 2010 census. The median ages range from a low of 27 years on Frenchboro to a high of 60 years on Great Diamond.

The greater median age is the result of an influx of older residents who then become active in the communities, according to the Island Institute report.

While Maine ranks 31st in median income of the states, 11 of the 15 islands have median incomes greater than the state. This trend is the result of native and summer residents, who have made the island their year-round home, living elsewhere and then returning after having earned higher incomes.

The lobster industry has been a large source of the incomes of residents. While islanders make up less than 1 percent of the state population, they hold 9 percent of the lobster licenses issued by the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

“Costs have increased, but many lobstermen have made up in volume what they have lost from rising fuel and bait costs, and flat or decreasing prices for their landings,” the report stated.

In 2010, the islands landed more than 12 million pounds of lobsters that they were paid $40 million.

The brightest spot in the report was on education.

The graduation rate for Maine island high schools has been virtually 100 percent in recent years, well above the state average. They also test at or above the Maine average on standardized testing. An increasing number of island graduates are going to college.

“Anecdotally, we know that island families participate in island schools at a very high level. Island school graduations are often community events, where fishermen end their workday early to participate, extended family members provide snacks, and the celebration has become a tradition,” the report notes.

There has been an increase in island students’ applications to the Island Institute’s Scholarship Program — up to more than 90 applicants per year.

Civic involvement, as measured by turnout at elections, shows a greater percentage of islanders vote at elections than the state average. The statewide average in 2008, for example was 76 percent but exceeded 80 percent on most of the islands.

Energy costs are greater on the island with electricity costs ranging from 16 cents to 70 cents per kilowatt hour compared with a Maine average of 16 cents, the report notes. Oil prices are greater because of the additional transportation costs and lack of volume discounts.

Food costs also are greater on the island.

“Many island stores work very hard to keep the prices of staples low in support of their community. The reality is, however, that every food item imported to an island travels by truck, ferry, private boat or air. In most instances, the items have to be handled multiple times before placed on the store shelf. Transportation, fuel costs and the cost of time all factor into the cost of food on-island,” the report indicates.

Toilet paper, cereal and cat food were among the grocery items with the greatest price differential, according to a study done by the Island Institute’s island fellowship recipients. Bananas, bread and sugar cost less on the islands, based on the survey.

Sixty-three percent of houses on the islands in Maine are seasonal residences. This is nearly four times the 16 percent statewide average for seasonal residences.

The report found what it said was a bright spot from the drop in housing prices due to the Great Recession. In 2008, island residents on average earned only enough to pay for 40 percent of the median price of a home. That rose to 76 percent in 2009.

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