ELLSWORTH, Maine — When it comes to territorial disputes in Maine’s lobster industry, personal animosities can be aggravated by external pressures that inflame passions between competing fishermen.
What led to Monday’s shooting on Matinicus Island may not yet be widely apparent, but there are external factors that are making life harder for lobstermen throughout the state, according to industry officials.
Chief among them are the relatively low price lobstermen are getting for their catch and the increased expense many face from switching to sinking ground lines on their multitrap trawls. In April, the federal government enacted a sinking ground line requirement to help prevent endangered whales from getting tangled in lobster gear.
Lt. Alan Talbot of the Maine Marine Patrol said Wednesday that despite these pressures, his agency is not getting more complaints about lobster territory disputes this year than it has in previous years.
Talbot oversees Marine Patrol operations from the St. George River in Knox County to the Canadian border.
“We have territorial disputes every summer,” Talbot said. “I’ve not had complaints about that any more than normal.”
Areas where territory conflicts have been more prevalent in the past include off Stonington near Isle au Haut, waters between Friendship and Monhegan, and in eastern Washington County between Cutler fishermen and their Canadian counterparts.
Talbot acknowledged that the new sinking ground line requirement could be causing some lobstermen to change their habits a little, such as by setting more traps in areas where they think the rope is less likely to get caught on the bottom. But he said he has not heard that this has contributed to any regional confrontations over territory.
“Not that I am aware of,” Talbot said. “Sometimes people take care of things on their own. Sometimes they call us.”
Steve Robbins, manager of the Stonington Lobster Co-op, said Wednesday that the economic pressure on fishermen brought on by low prices and increased expenses has the industry in a state of heightened tension.
It’s not as bad as the car industry, he said, but it’s not good.
“Everyone is on edge for a good reason,” he said. “Things are heated.”
Robbins said there seems to be a greater number of larger boats — which usually concentrate their efforts farther offshore — fishing in closer to land than in previous years. They are making more of an effort to set traps where lobsters are more likely to be at this time of year, he said.
Lobstermen follow the annual migrations of lobsters toward then away from shore, so the issue is not so much over traditional territory as it is over more specific “congestion” among fishermen who traditionally fish in the same general area, he said.
Fishermen who set their gear inside a line that runs approximately three miles offshore are exempt from the sinking rope requirement, but, according to Robbins, the congestion is more a result of low prices than it is about sink rope.
Different fishermen have different fishing habits, he said, but most of them are looking for ways to keep a steady income. The sinking ground line requirement is eating into the bottom line of many of them, he said,
“I know a lot of guys have lost a lot of traps,” Robbins said. “The sinking ground line thing is disastrous for these guys.”
Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said the new ground line rule has prompted many fishermen to set their gear in areas where the sinking rope is less likely to catch on bottom, which may have led to some crowding.
But she does not think it has created any problems with traditional fishing territories, she said.
The sink rope wears out more quickly than the old floating rope that most lobstermen are used to, McCarron said. Not only is sink rope most expensive, she said, but it has to be replaced more often and is contributing to a higher rate of gear loss.
“The [sink] rope is wearing out a lot faster than the float rope,” McCarron said. “[Fishermen] are really starting to have problems with it.”
The use of sinking ground lines is not an issue for all lobstermen in Maine, but low prices are. After four straight years of annual average boat prices above $4 per pound, prices plummeted last fall in the wake of the global economic crisis.
The price lobstermen get for their catch fell in October to less than $3 per pound and resulted in an annual average for 2008 of $3.50. Prices have fluctuated somewhat since then, but now they generally are again back below $3 per pound.
The most recent year in which the annual average boat price for lobster was less than $3 per pound was in 1998, when it was $2.92. According to the federal Energy Information Administration, for most of 1998 the national average price of diesel fuel was a little more than $1 per gallon, less than half of what it costs now.
The disparity between expenses such as diesel fuel and what fishermen are earning has led many lobstermen to publicly suggest that their ability to earn a living by fishing for lobster may be in jeopardy.
Glen Beal, a fisherman from Beals Island, said Tuesday that during the good economic years of the 1990s and earlier this decade, many new fishermen got into lobstering in the belief that it always would be relatively lucrative. Many of them borrowed large amounts of money to buy houses and new powerful boats but now are having a hard time making their bank payments, he said.
“People are taking on too much because they had a few good years,” Beal said. “Some of these guys have never seen any [lean years] but, boy, they’re getting a good taste of it right now.”