National Fisherman

Cover Story Excerpt: Summer of their discontent

Maine's lobster fishery flares up along the midcoast

By Kirk Moore

The day after one Maine lobsterman shot another on a wharf on the two-square-mile patch of Matinicus Island, islander Nat Hussey heard another shocker: State officials thought they would pacify the island's lobstermen by shutting them down for two weeks in midsummer.

"You have a community here that's utterly dependent on lobstering," said Hussey, who used to work as a lawyer before he moved to the island 20 miles offshore and became a stern man four years ago. "Out of 35 boats here, our little boat alone feeds 10 people.

"To have that completely cut off, especially on the heels of last year, would have been a disaster."

Matinicus lobsterman Chris Young, 41, was partially paralyzed after he was shot in the neck July 20 by Edwin Vance Bunker, 68, during an incident that islanders say arose from a dispute over Bunker's son-in-law trying to fish his traps in Matinicus waters.

Amid rumors of lobster war in Maine and the state crackdown, Matinicus islanders did what they have always done: They got together and came up with a plan. Hussey threw his legal skills into obtaining a hearing in Knox County Superior Court, where islanders and news media packed the courtroom as George D. Lapointe, commissioner of Maine's Department of Marine Resources, arrived.

The Matinicus lobstermen fended off the closing, but other reports of mayhem were erupting: three boats sunk at Owls Head, traps cut on the Damariscotta River and near Friendship. State police filed a charge of criminal threatening against another Matinicus man over an Aug. 10 confrontation on an island road with his former stern man.

The incidents opened a rare public window into the dark side of the lobster business, a force normally kept in check, or at least to a tolerable level, by local customs and social norms. Territorial conflicts are famously endemic in Maine, where an informal practice of locally allocating lobster grounds predates statehood and operates as a parallel system to state law — which officially says licensed lobstermen can fish anywhere in their zone.

Now it's time for the state to formally recognize the practice of harbor territories, says Matinicus lobsterman Clayton Philbrook, one organizer of a proposal to have state legislators dedicate waters around Maine's farthest seaward settlement to local boats.

"If we don't control the bottom where we fish, Matinicus is done," says Philbrook, who traces his family's history on the island to the 1820s. "It's not a resource conservation zone, it's a community conservation zone.

National Fisherman Live

National Fisherman Live: 11/06/14

In this episode:

NOAA report touts 2013 landings, value increases
Panama fines GM salmon company Aquabounty
Gulf council passes Reef Fish Amendment 40
Maine elver quota cut by 2,000 pounds
Offshore mussel farm would be East Coast’s first

 

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