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Lobster boats set adrift in ‘vendetta'

The start of Maine’s lobster season was marred by vandalism, but authorities don’t believe it represents a resumption of the state’s infamous “lobster wars.”

Maine's lobstermen compete vigorously, but they usually do so peacefully.

Two lobster boats were cut loose from their moorings in Friendship Harbor this spring and left to drift and sink on an outgoing tide while water poured in through slashed intake and exhaust hoses. Maine Marine Patrol Sgt. Rene Cloutier says the vandalism appears to have involved a “personal vendetta” rather than a territorial dispute. Cloutier is handling the investigation with the Coast Guard and the Knox County sheriff.

In the past, conflicts have broken out over territorial claims to waters where lobstermen’s families traditionally have set traps, sometimes for generations. The disputes peaked in a shooting in 2009. The new vandalism occurred in spring. Since then, the summer has been relatively peaceful by most accounts.

Here’s what happened one night in May. Fantaseas, a 35-foot lobster boat owned by Gary Jones, 50, of Cushing, and Lobstah Taxi, a 28-footer owned by Jones’ 15-year-old son Logan, were cut loose in Friendship as the tide was going out. The water intake and exhaust manifold hose on Fantaseas had been cut. The hoses on Lobstah Taxi were cut, too, but not all the way through, says Tina Jones, Gary’s wife. She says the boats were found grounded about a mile apart the next morning outside the harbor.

Fantaseas probably would have sunk had it not run up on a ledge off Walker’s Beach in Friendship, though it was 90 percent submerged, she says. Damage was estimated at $20,000. Lobstah Taxi beached on Ram Island, and although its hoses were functioning, it had taken on some water, causing $7,000 damage, she says.

Jones says neither her husband nor her son has been setting traps in new waters that might spark retaliation. “These are waters [off Cushing] that Logan’s father has fished for 40 years, and his father fished for 40 years before him,” she says. She laid the vandalism to a “bad egg” jealous of the Joneses’ success.

Logan Jones, who has Type I diabetes, has been lobstering since he was 6 years old. He acquired his first boat and started working his own traps when he was 10 and now tends 400 traps of his own. “I want the public to know my husband and son are hard-working people,” Tina Jones says. They are well-regarded in the community, she says, not troublemakers.

Cloutier says there had been a few incidents of lobstermen molesting each other’s boats or traps this spring, but nothing out of the ordinary and certainly nothing approaching the wave of disputes that rocked the lobster fishery in the spring of 2009. That’s when Matinicus Island lobsterman Chris Young, 41, was shot in the neck with a .22-caliber handgun in a confrontation with Vance Bunker, 68, another island lobsterman, over lobstering rights. A Rockland jury found Bunker not guilty of elevated aggravated assault.

Conflicts typically involve territorial claims to areas where families have traditionally fished.

Tensions on Matinicus were so high after the shooting that officials tried to close lobstering there for two weeks during the busy July harvest. They reopened it after four days when lobstermen challenged the closing in court. Two weeks after the shooting, two lobster boats were sunk and a third was damaged in Owls Head. As the summer went on, more reports of cut lobster trap lines came in.

Maine’s lobster fishery is regulated through licensing, which permits a license holder to lobster in one of eight zones. However, an informal code — not enforceable by law — holds that particular families who have staked out territories in lobster-rich waters pass them on to their children and defend those territories, if necessary, from encroachers. Newcomers to a fishery learn quickly through trial and error which waters are open and which are taken. Encroachment usually draws 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 pulled, their doors opened; and lastly, traps cut loose. In extreme cases a boat might be set adrift to tell a lobsterman to move on.

Cloutier says incidents tend to increase during times of heightened tension, when lobstermen are squeezed and their livelihoods threatened by low prices at the docks for lobster and high costs for bait and fuel. “When everyone’s making a lot of money, you don’t see a lot of problems,” he says. But when bait and fuel go up and lobster prices fall, tension mounts and territorial disputes multiply.

Cloutier says he doesn’t take the recent incident in Friendship Harbor as an omen of things to come, although in the current economic climate, “I don’t think you’ll find a lobsterman alive say he’s getting a good price for lobsters,” he says.

This article originally appeared in the September 2012 issue.