The Working Waterfront

How Vinalhaven wrestles with the pandemic

Housing, labor, and tourism issues impact island

Matt Jablonski
Posted 2021-12-20
Last Modified 2022-02-14

Reflections is written by Island Fellows, recent college grads who do community service work on Maine islands and in coastal communities through the Island Institute, publisher of The Working Waterfront.

When I began my fellowship with Vinalhaven’s town office in September 2020, I came to the island in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The effects of the pandemic were apparent from my first week here. Reduced tourist traffic, lower demand for lobster, and recurrent concerns about outbreaks on-island all contributed to a sense of disruption in the island community.

In the 14 months since I began my fellowship, I continued to witness firsthand the cascading consequences of the pandemic on island life and the ways the community is seeking to address these issues.

The zoning ordinance is currently under review to make high density housing development easier…

Among the most prominent challenges facing the community is the cost of housing. Vinalhaven has not been able to avoid the vertiginous rise in housing costs afflicting much of the nation’s housing markets. Homes up for sale on island frequently receive multiple offers almost immediately and an influx of off-island purchasers have driven prices up.

The associated rise in the cost of living has placed strain on year-round residents, especially young families, who are seeking sustainable long-term housing on island.

Matt Jablonski
Matt Jablonski

Housing shortages have in turn affected users of the island’s working waterfront, which is among the largest lobster fisheries in the state. Lobstermen depend on a robust seasonal workforce during peak fishing months. However, due to the lack of available seasonal workforce housing and the broader labor shortage, lobstermen have had to fish short-staffed throughout the season. And, with lobster fetching the highest prices in recent memory, fishermen have had to work longer hours with less help this year to take advantage of the hot market.

Municipal services on Vinalhaven also have been impacted by the pandemic. Staffing challenges persist at the town office with multiple departments operating shorthanded for months now as a number of positions remain unfilled.
The town has operated without an EMS director for almost six months now, having received only a handful of applications. Other positions, such as deputy town clerk and public works foreman, have likewise remained unfilled.

Exacerbating all these issues on island was an exceptionally busy tourist season. Maine State Ferry Service passenger traffic during Memorial Day was down 57 percent in 2020 from 2019. Traffic, at least on Vinalhaven’s ferry, was certainly considerably higher in 2021 compared to 2020.

As one island resident described it to me in September: “June felt like July, July felt like August, and August feels like God-knows-what.”

The availability of the COVID vaccine enabled more safe travel this summer, which plenty of tourists took advantage of on Vinalhaven. Local businesses struggling with staffing had to contend with increased demand while thousands more traveled the island’s ferry and roads, placing greater strain on island infrastructure.

Altogether, the nexus of challenges facing the community, some of which predate the pandemic, no doubt intensified as a result of the pandemic. The community has begun to confront these challenges. At the municipal level, the town office and select board have collaborated with the community to begin developing solutions.

The zoning ordinance is currently under review to make high density housing development easier on island. As a Fellow, I have worked with the recently reinitiated housing committee to conduct an island-wide housing survey and begin formulating actions the municipality can take to alleviate housing demand.

The pandemic has presented a panoply of difficulties for Vinalhaven. While these difficulties persist, the island community is working to address the problems head-on, and my work as a Fellow has afforded me the ability to participate in this work.

The fellowship has been an exceptional opportunity to understand the intricacies of local governance in difficult times. I look forward to the coming months, as my year on island has equipped me to contribute to the essential work done by the town office during the quieter winter season.

Matt Jablonski works with Vinalhaven helping the town government integrate its strategic plan and develop its organizational infrastructure. Prior to his move to Vinalhaven, he has lived in a variety of states, including Massachusetts, Washington, and Texas. He is a graduate of Haverford College with a degree in English.