Matinicus resident says ban on lobstering punishes the innocent

Posted July 22, 2009, at 11:41 p.m.

MATINICUS, Maine — As they hauled their traps Wednesday afternoon, many of Matinicus Island’s 24 lobstermen were in better spirits than they had been that morning.

By then, a rumor had spread through the fleet that an unusual state-ordered two-week lobstering shutdown due to recent violence would be shortened to just two days.

But a Department of Marine Resources official said Wednesday afternoon that the length of the closure would depend entirely on how well the island’s lobstermen comply with the emergency restrictions over the next few days.

DMR ordered the closure Tuesday as an emergency “cooling-off period” after island lobsterman Chris Young was shot in the neck Monday allegedly by island lobsterman Vance Bunker, 68. The two men had been feuding over lobster territory, police officials said.

The shutdown is to begin a half-hour before sunrise today.

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Today’s Poll

Do you agree with the state’s decision to temporarily shut down lobstering around Matinicus in response to the recent shooting there?

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“We did it to get people’s attention because the situation on Matinicus has obviously escalated beyond what it has ever been and we wanted people to calm down,” Marine Resources Commissioner George LaPointe said Wednesday afternoon of the closure. “If people honor the closure, follow the regulations and understand the reasons why we did it, then we will consider shortening it.”

It’s the first time in LaPointe’s 10 years that he has been forced to use his authority to close an area to fishing because of conflicts or violence.

But as a 110-foot Coast Guard vessel loomed off the southern end of Matinicus, islanders said Wednesday that a closure would have the opposite of a cooling-off effect on a place where nearly everyone depends on lobstering to make a living.

“It’s punishing a lot of innocent people who were not directly involved,” said Donna Rogers, the wife of a lobsterman. “I understand why they did it, but I don’t think it’s making the situation better. I think it’s making it worse. Having the whole island full of angry, half-broke fishermen isn’t making it better.”

Many lobstermen said Wednesday afternoon that they had heard DMR would shut down fishing Thursday and Friday, and that Col. Joe Fessenden, chief of marine law enforcement in the state, would make a special trip to Matinicus on Saturday to meet with the fleet.

Marine Resources officials would confirm Wednesday only that members of the department would be visiting the island to meet with lobstermen soon.

“A closure, that’s a disaster. That’s the most monumentally stupid idea I’ve heard in my life,” said Clayton Philbrook, an island selectman who said he would be asking a Knox County Superior Court justice to issue a temporary restraining order against DMR today.

Fessenden, however, said he had little choice in the matter.

“This is an extreme measure … and we take it very seriously,” he said Wednesday.

Monday’s shooting apparently was prompted by the cutting of 200 traps over the weekend and an assault earlier that day, Fessenden said. Young was flown to Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, where he underwent surgery Monday and was listed in stable condition Tuesday, according to Maine State Police. No further information about his condition was available Wednesday night.

Bunker was arrested and taken to Knox County Jail in Rockland, where he was released on $125,000 surety bail Tuesday and ordered to stay off the island and have no direct or indirect contact with Young or island residents Weston Ames and Ronnie Ames.

Fessenden said his office first heard that tensions were rising on Matinicus in the spring. The Marine Patrol stepped up its presence on the island but the remote location — at least an hour away from the mainland on a fast boat — and limited resources restricted how much DMR could do. Meanwhile, the conflict that led to the shooting, as well as other disagreements, continued to brew.

Fessenden recalled that shots were fired during a different lobstering turf war on Matinicus several years back. Boats have been vandalized, wharfs and buildings burned and literally thousands of traps cut in recent years as part of an atmosphere of vigilante justice among some on the island, he said.

“The community needs to get together and not allow this type of behavior to continue,” Fessenden said.

‘Hard living’

As lobstermen gathered at the town pier amid sparkling sunshine Wednesday, the shooting was clearly on everyone’s minds — along with concerns about the anticipated closure and other worries that would be familiar to lobstermen anywhere along the coast.

It’s just that those worries get magnified on an island 20 miles out at sea, with a year-round population of just 51 in the last census.

“We’re in a goldfish bowl,” Rogers said.

The summer’s low prices and high costs, including the new cost of replacing floating ropes with right whale-friendly sinking ropes, have left many islanders in a bind, especially after last fall’s lobster price collapse. Tensions are high, and many families are now living paycheck to paycheck, at least until the more lucrative fall lobster season, islanders said.

But the islanders approached by media on Wednesday were leery of talking specifics about the shooting or disagreements that led to it.

“I think at this point, we’re fighting for survival,” Rogers said. “They’re fighting for their homes. They’re fighting for their community. It’s not even the money, anymore.”

While Rogers said that the days are over when Matinicus was known as home to the best lobster fishing ground in the world, life on the island is still worth fighting for. She said she knows that it has a mainland reputation as a “pirate island” — a place long used to taking care of its own problems with its own style of justice.

“We’re aggressive in defending our bottom [fishing territory]. We always have been,” said Philbrook, the selectman. “That’s been handed down out here for 100 years. That’s our legacy for all the kids.”

But that isn’t the whole story, islanders argue, and they describe a place where community members help each other.

Last fall when lobsterman Chris Whitaker was lost in waters off the Zephyr Ledges, the whole island helped look for him, they said.

“I think Matinicus’ [reputation] is greatly exaggerated,” said lobster buyer Marty Molloy. “There’s no other place I’d rather be in the summertime in Maine … reality and what’s depicted are very far apart.”

Rogers, a diminutive grandmother, agreed.

“They’ve labeled us a bunch of pirates, but that’s not who we are,” she said. “There are some really nice people here, who just want to live and go fishing and tend to their own lives.”

Jeremy Van Dyne and his two kids, Emma, 9, and Max, 7, seem like some of those people. He’s a fourth-generation island lobstermen who was busy teaching the fifth generation the location of some of his favorite sweet spots off the island’s rockbound shore.

Van Dyne said he had headed out at 4:30 a.m. Wednesday to haul his entire string of traps because he had expected it would be the last day he could make any money for two weeks.

“I wasn’t going to come in until dark,” he said. “But I heard on the radio they were going to stop the closure.”

But after pulling 316 traps and catching 259 pounds of lobsters on Wednesday, Van Dyne took an excited Emma and Max out in a flat-bottom skiff to show them the ropes.

While skipping through Matinicus’ picturesque harbor in the skiff, he pointed out Chris Young’s boat, the Miss Madelyn. Young’s kids are friends with his own, Van Dyne said.

“May Chris Young be in our thoughts,” Emma said to herself.

“We don’t like to talk about it in front of them,” her dad said later. “It’s a shame.”

Emma stuffed bait bags with pungent herring, her dad hauled lobster traps by hand, and an inquisitive Max looked for crabs and other sea life — though not to eat, he said, wrinkling up his nose at the very concept.

“When I’m a teenager, I definitely want to do this,” Emma said.

Island life is not for everyone, Van Dyne said, but it’s a good place — and a safe place — for kids to grow up.

“It’s hard living,” he said. “It takes a special person to want to live out here.”

BDN writer Kevin Miller contributed to this report.

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