An automobile ferry arrives at North Haven, Maine in this March 2020 file photo. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / BDN

The population of Maine’s offshore islands, which incurred steady declines in the decades after World War II and still face myriad challenges in sustaining their year-round communities, jumped by nearly 8 percent between 2010 and 2020.

There are roughly a dozen offshore islands in Maine, reachable only by plane or boat, that have towns with year-round residents. Their populations range from a few dozen to, in the case of Vinalhaven, more than 1,200.

Over the past decade, three of them saw their populations decline — all to a fairly significant degree — but the rest saw their populations collectively jump by 10 percent, according to population figures released Aug.12 by the U.S. Census Bureau as part of its 2020 redistricting data.

Frenchboro in Hancock County saw the steepest drop, losing more than half of its 61 residents  since 2010. Maine’s two most remote island communities, Matinicus and Monhegan, also lost population — 21 people in the case of Matinicus, representing more than a quarter of its residents, and five people on Monhegan, which is more than a 7 percent decrease.

Those with increases include Chebeague Island in Casco Bay, which grew by 16 percent, from 341 residents to 396; North Haven, off the coast of Rockland, which grew from 355 to 417 for a 17.5 percent increase; Islesboro, southeast of Belfast in Penobscot Bay, which grew by 3 percent, from 566 to 583; and Swan’s Island, located southwest of Mount Desert Island, which gained 23 residents, boosting its population to 355.

Myron “Sonny” Sprague, chairman of the Swan’s Island board of selectmen, said he thinks the island’s population has grown more than that. It always swells by a couple hundred in the summer, when seasonal residents show up to their vacation homes, but he said he noticed last winter that there were new faces around town.

Last summer, after census data had been gathered, Sprague said, there was a noticeable increase in people looking to buy homes on Swan’s Island, which is about a 6-mile ferry ride from Bass Harbor on Mount Desert Island. He said “a few” of them were people from out of state who were looking to distance themselves from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ve had a lot of land sales in the past year,” he said, adding that it has been good for the town’s tax base. “That 355 number could be a low number.”

Among the challenges that offshore island residents contend with are high transportation and utility costs, both of which tend to be significantly higher for island residents than for people who live on the mainland. Access to food can be difficult in winter. And many islands have been trying to boost the availability of broadband so residents have better access to online services, and so island businesses can conduct online sales.

Meghan Grabill, data analyst for the Island Institute in Rockland, said that investments by some island communities in broadband seem to have helped boost their populations. The institute has heard from some island towns that even more people moved there last summer, but there is a good chance that some might decide not to stay, Grabill said.

Census takers do not check at local town offices to see if people are legal local residents and have registered to vote, she said, so census numbers always have to be taken with a grain of salt.

Regardless of the COVID effect, some new island residents may simply be taking advantage of the rapid increase in remote work and, now that they can attend Zoom meetings from Maine islands, have made the move.

Cranberry Isles — which grew from 141 to 160 residents between 2010 and 2020 — got a $1.3 million grant in 2018 to boost its broadband availability, Grabill pointed out, while Islesboro spent $3.8 million a few years ago to expand its broadband access.

“They have some of the fastest speeds in the country out there,” she said of Islesboro.

Outside of a few sparsely occupied islands that have no municipal governments, the largest percentage increase was on Isle Au Haut — which just a few years ago had trouble keeping its town government functioning. The population there grew by 19 people, from 73 to 92, or by 26 percent. The island that added the most residents was Vinalhaven with 114, nearly a 10 percent increase that boosted its population from 1,165 to 1,279.

2020 census data for islands that are part of the city of Portland were not available this week, though American Community Survey estimates from 2019 show a mix of growth and population declines.

The populations of Great Diamond and Little Diamond in Portland fell sharply from 2010 to 2019, with 50 of the two islands’ 91 residents moving away. Meanwhile, Peaks Island’s population grew nearly 4 percent over those nine years, from 864 to 896, while Cliff Island’s population grew by three people, from 50 to 53, or by 6 percent.

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....