Island Institute Helps Families Cast a Wider Net

On Little Cranberry Island, and in Maine’s other island and coastal communities, the nonprofit helps families diversify their income — and a secure fishing future.

Emma Fernald and Sam Flavin
Photo by Chris Battaglia
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In 2019, Sam Flavin moved to Maine from Burlington, Massachusetts, to take a job as a sternman on a lobsterboat. “I’d never really considered making a life on the water,” the former nonprofit worker says. “I just decided to make a switch, and it immediately became clear it was a good fit.” The boat, Emma Marie, was moored off Little Cranberry Island, also known as Islesford, off Mount Desert Island. “That’s how I got my start in the industry,” Flavin says, “and how I met Emma.” The captain’s daughter, Emma Fernald also worked aboard her namesake boat, the seventh generation of her family to fish from Islesford Harbor. 

Today, Flavin and Fernald live together on Little Cranberry, part of a year-round population of 71 (“We just counted the other day,” Fernald says). Nearly all of their neighbors are somehow involved in the lobstering community, which spans generations, from licensed fishermen as young as 10 right on up to veteran haulers in their 80s. Flavin and Fernald love the work, demanding as it is. “You live your whole life around fishing,” Flavin says. “It dominates your schedule.” But it’s also seasonal and can be capricious, which is why each of them have projects in the works to help diversify their income, with a little help from Island Institute, a community development nonprofit based in Rockland.

Fernald, who’s 25, is still a sternwoman on her dad’s lobsterboat, but she’s also in the process of starting a small scallop farm. Last year, she secured two Island Institute grants to help get it off the ground: a Compass Workforce Grant, part of an Institute program geared towards young adults launching new careers, and a Business Resilience Grant. Fernald used the money to buy startup gear: spat bags to collect larvae, anchors, floatation buoys, and more. “There’s a lot of up-front costs involved with starting an aquaculture farm, and it takes a long time to get a return on your investment,” she says. “These grant programs, for me, are essential to being able to get this farm up and running.” 

scuba guy
Photo by Chris Battaglia

Flavin, meanwhile, has moved on to another lobsterboat, but he also moonlights as a scuba diver, doing mooring maintenance and inspections, removing ropes from boat propellers, and working with aquaculture farmers. He too was awarded a Compass Workforce Grant, which he used to buy a dry suit for winter diving, and he’s since applied for a Business Resilience Grant, hoping to put the money towards a boat. “That would basically allow me to have a fully functioning business,” he says.

In the last decade, Island Institute has invested some $600,000 in small businesses just like these. Grants and loans from the Institute have allowed a Swan’s Island resident to increase her family’s income by growing seaweed, helped expand a coffee-roaster business on Monhegan, provided capital to launch a kelp-based skincare line out of York, and more. For Island Institute, currently celebrating its 40th anniversary, it’s just one part of a broader commitment to community development in Maine’s coastal towns and 15 unbridged-island communities. 

From its founding in 1983, the Institute has celebrated and helped to sustain Maine island life in a variety of ways. One of the Institute’s earliest efforts was to help strengthen island schools by offering student scholarships for off-island learning, hosting gatherings for island teachers to help combat isolation, and providing professional development opportunities. In 2000, the organization launched its Island Fellows Program, placing recent higher-education graduates in positions serving community needs, from digitizing historical archives to working on climate-action committees. The Island Institute’s 2005 study found that Maine’s working waterfront makes up only 20 miles of more than 5,000 miles of coastline — and that number is in decline. In the decades since, preserving the working waterfront has remained a top priority for the organization, as evidenced most recently by its support of Maine Legislature Bill LD 574, which will allow land trusts to conserve working waterfront — preventing, for example, its conversion to condos.

The Institute also supports the creative economy through Archipelago, a Rockland store dedicated to Maine-made goods. It led the charge to connect islands and coastal communities to high-speed internet, and it birthed the Maine Island Trail, which now operates as its own nonprofit. All of these initiatives connect back to the organization’s top priorities of addressing climate issues, building resilient economies, and fostering strong leadership. “Maine’s island and coastal communities are facing unprecedented changes,” says Island Institute president Kim Hamilton. “Our biggest challenge is ensuring we are using our resources to support communities at the point of highest leverage.”

woman holding bags
Photo by Chris Battaglia

Flavin and Fernald don’t plan to quit lobstering anytime soon, despite the challenges that a warming Gulf of Maine and evolving federal regulations on gear and closures may pose for the industry. “We definitely have concerns, but Sam and I both think it’s important to keep a positive attitude,” Fernald says. Flavin agrees. “Fishermen are able to work together, especially under stress, to come up with really good solutions,” he says. “We’ve got some big challenges, but I think we are uniquely positioned to be able to tackle them — it’s the nature of the way we work and the way we live.” 

The extra financial security from their new businesses, both say, helps make it possible to keep on fishing, both in the off-season (the Emma Marie hauls out in the winter, while Flavin’s new boat fishes just twice a week) and during stretches of low prices, meager landings, or other disruptions. “In fishing, there’s an ebb and flow,” Flavin says. “It’s good to hedge our bets a little bit.”

Fernald’s family has fished off Little Cranberry since long before the founding of the Island Institute, but the organization hopes to be a resource for generations to come for hers and other island families looking to maintain their way of life. “We will continue to use our resources, talent, and relationships to support the work of island and coastal communities,” Hamilton says. “Our vision is deeply connected to their own vision for a sustainable, vibrant future.”

To learn more and support Island Institute’s mission, visit