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Lobster wars: ‘Good people’ doing bad things

Maine shooting has roots in a generations-old conflict between lobstering statutes and ‘island law’

A shooting on Maine’s remote Matinicus Island has brought into sharp focus islanders’ historic ways of divvying up — and defending — prime lobstering grounds that have provided their livelihoods for generations.

The lobstering community on Maine's Matinicus Island has a history of hard workers who are protective of their long-held fishing grounds.

The century-old practice of island families claiming exclusive lobstering rights to island waters is nowhere in Maine law, but it remains a fact of island life. It appears to have been a factor in the dispute that led to a July 20 shooting at the main pier on Matinicus — a 2.6-square-mile island 20 miles southeast of Rockland — though it may not have been the only irritant.

“You’ve also got some longstanding family feuds out there that I don’t understand,” says University of Maine anthropologist Jim Acheson, author of the 1988 book “The Lobster Gangs of Maine” and a longtime observer of Maine lobstering, its culture and mores.

Matinicus lobsterman Chris Young, 41, was shot in the neck with a .22 caliber handgun in a confrontation with Vance Bunker, 68, another island lobsterman and father-in-law of Alan Miller, an off-island lobster fisherman who owns property on Matinicus with his wife, Janan, according to Maine Marine Patrol Maj. John Fetterman.

Bunker was charged with elevated aggravated assault, released on $125,000 bond, and ordered to stay off the island. Attorneys for Young, who remained hospitalized in early August, have filed suit, asking for $4 million in damages from Bunker for neurological injuries they say could jeopardize Young’s ability to work.

Tensions on Matinicus were so high after the shooting that state officials tried to close lobstering there for two weeks during the busy July harvest of coveted “shedders” — lobsters that have molted their hard shells. They reopened it after four days when lobstermen challenged the closure in court.

All in the family

Maine’s lobster fishery is regulated through licensing, which permits a license holder to lobster in one of eight zones. Matinicus is in Zone C off midcoast Maine, but the rules are different there, as they are off many of the islands. Zone C license holders aren’t welcome to fish Matinicus unless they’re islanders.

“The informal rule is, if you want to fish here you have to live on the island,” says Acheson, who also has written “Capturing the Commons: Devising Institutions to Manage the Maine Lobster Industry.” Old island families have staked out territories in Matinicus’ lobster-rich waters and pass them on to their children. “It has been that way at least as far back as the 1890s,” Acheson says. “It may go farther back than that.”

But what constitutes “living on the island” isn’t always clear. Matinicus has about 50 year-round residents, 100 to 150 in summer, 25 of them serious resident lobstermen. Though a beautiful getaway, Matinicus doesn’t have many amenities: a bakery, bed-and-breakfast inn, gift shop, a small grade school, a church that doubles as a community center, a few cottages, no grocery stores or restaurants.

Access to the island is by the daily mail plane or a ferry from Rockland that visits monthly in winter, weekly the rest of the year. Many who live there also have homes on the mainland that they retreat to in winter or at other times to escape “island fever,” complicating the matter of residency.

“Because [Miller’s] wife grew up on Matinicus [and the couple own property on the island], he thought he had the right to fish there,” says Fetterman. But the criteria for winning acceptance as an islander aren’t that clear-cut.

“Some people out there wouldn’t accept [Miller],” Fetterman says. “He was very successful on the mainland. They thought he should have stayed there. We’ve had gear-cutting and conflicts the last four years. It has been escalating and escalating and escalating.”

The showdown

The matter came to a head this summer. Fetterman says his officers already were on the island July 20 investigating a report that Young had threatened Miller and, according to press reports, Bunker had used pepper spray to fend off Young on Bunker’s boat earlier in the day. Fetterman says Miller was just pulling up in his fishing boat, Hustler, with marine patrol officer Wes Dean aboard when Bunker and Young got into it again on the pier, and Young was shot. Miller’s wife also was at the pier — with a shotgun — during the altercation, as was Young’s half-brother, Weston Ames, according to the lawsuit Young’s attorney filed in Knox County Superior Court.

To an outsider, the islanders’ extralegal territorial claims may seem an anachronism and their enforcement prone to abuse and frontierlike disputes and showdowns. To a law-enforcement officer, they are a recipe for lawlessness.

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“This is not anything new,” says Fetterman. “But in the 30 years that I’ve been around, this is the first time it has escalated to this level of violence.” Turf wars can become bitter and prolonged and give rise to vigilante justice, he says.

“They [lobstermen] become the judge and jury with regards to who can fish and who can’t,” he says. “All these invisible lines are drawn within the community about who can fish, when they can fish, and the state doesn’t recognize them. Yet the territorial lines are so deeply rooted in these communities.”

Fetterman’s 50 officers are too thinly spread to police the islands 24/7, yet the job has fallen to them to keep island disputes from escalating into violence. “We try to keep a lid on things,” he says.

Clash last year

In September 2008, Victor Ames, a then-75-year-old lobsterman and lifelong resident of the island, sued Maine’s Department of Marine Resources and 23 island lobstermen, alleging that resource officers and the islanders had colluded to keep him from lobstering off Matinicus.

Ames had undergone heart surgery in 2005, was recuperating on the mainland, and had hired another mainlander, Frankie Thomas, to tend 400 of his traps off Matinicus for a couple months. Ames alleges that on May 26, 2006, while Thomas was pulling Ames’ traps, several lobster boats surrounded him. The skippers told him that if they found him in Matinicus waters again, they would “destroy all his gear on Vinalhaven Island and anywhere else.” The suit says the following month 380 of Ames’ traps off Matinicus were “cut, molested, destroyed or converted.”

The territorial lines that distinguish who can lobster and where are deeply rooted in the community and are not recognized by the state.

There were allegations — all untrue, the suit claims — that Ames had threatened to cut the others’ traps and ram their boats in retaliation, so the lobstermen started carrying guns on the water. Ames alleges one of them shot at him twice with a shotgun as he and a sternman checked traps. Ames claims in his filing that the 23 islanders he names as defendants — among them both Vance Bunker and Chris Young, the two men involved in the July shooting — were members of a Matinicus Island Fisherman’s Group that met and decided who could and could not fish on the island, and adopted strategies for dealing with encroachers. He also says Department of Marine Resource officers met with the group and colluded with it to force him out, an allegation the department denies in its court filings.

“We can’t [and don’t] recognize these community boundaries,” says Fetterman.

An Aug. 4 filing in U.S. District Court in Bangor reports a settlement in the case.

‘We are offended’

For some, the media coverage of the shootout on Matinicus and characterization of lobstermen as lawless gangsters does not do justice to island life, society and mores. “There are a lot of misconceptions, a lot of stereotypes, a lot of insulting stuff going around [about Matinicus],” says Eva Murray, a 22-year island resident who owns a bakery and has been the town’s administrator, clerk and treasurer. “We are offended by the way we are often stereotyped. We are offended when we are characterized as [reveling in] this kind of heartache.”

Fetterman agrees the stereotypes are just that — stereotypes. “There are a lot of really good people who live out on Matinicus,” he says. “I’ve shared meals with [Miller and Bunker]. I know them and their families. It’s not easy for any of us when a conflict like this spins out of control.”

Yet it has. “What is bothersome about this case is the very, very unsavory reputation that it gives to the lobstermen,” says Acheson. “It makes them look like a bunch of criminals and pirates, which is very far from the truth.”

Nonetheless, he says Matinicus has had more than its share of conflicts and feuds, and the local watermen there do deliver a very strong message — to outsiders, as well as their own — that they don’t tolerate encroachers.

“It’s a hard, old world that these folks live in,” says Rev. Theodore Hos-kins, who has been an itinerant minister to the islands and their fisheries for the Maine Seacoast Mission and now is pastor on Isle au Haut. “You’ve got to protect your livelihood. There’s no sense in living out there if you can’t protect your living.”

Islanders protect their territory against both outsiders and each other, he says. “There’s a constant awareness that you’re always pushing the edges of where you can fish,” Hoskins says. Push too far, and a neighbor will let you know. If you don’t back off, the message is likely to get stronger. New entries into a fishery learn quickly from trial-and-error which waters are open and which are taken.

Hoskins says encroachment usually elicits a graduated response to warn an offender away: first, a note on a buoy or a hitch of line around the buoy spindle; second, a lobster trap line cut and retied. Then traps are pulled, their doors opened and, finally, the traps are cut loose. That’s a loss of about $80 a trap, and a lobsterman may put out as many as 400 of them. In extreme cases, a boat might be set adrift from its moorings to tell a lobsterman to move on.

Hoskins says this system of claiming territory, expanding it, defending it, holding on to it and passing it on to succeeding generations has worked well to protect islanders’ livelihoods, as well as the lobster stocks. “It’s a means of sustainable fishing,” he says. “It’s a means of conserving fish. … If you’re fishing the same bottom year after year, you’re not going to screw it up. … You’re going to protect your family’s future.” He says if islanders don’t push back against off-islanders, they soon would have no waters to fish, no lobsters to catch and no income.


Hoskins says the lobster fishery — though caught now in a vise of soaring fuel and bait costs and plummeting lobster prices — is Maine’s healthiest because lobstermen handle a lot of the management themselves through their zone councils. He thinks self-regulation — creation of a special islander-

regulated, state-approved lobster conservation zone with rules for who can lobster around Matinicus, where, when, with how many traps — could reduce tensions and turf battles. Similar zones exist around Monhegan, Swans Island and Isle au Haut, where conflicts between islanders and off-islanders have roiled the fisheries.

Fetterman says this was one of a number of ideas discussed at a community meeting on Matinicus after the shooting. “If the violence and conflict continue, the commissioner [Department of Natural Resources commissioner George Lapointe] will close the fishery again,” he says. “No one out there can survive a closure, but this has got to stop. I’m hoping that cooler heads prevail.”

See related articles:

- Plummeting prices don't help

- There's a heroic side to the alleged shooter

- Three boats are sunk in second dispute

This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue.