Sea change: Fishing ban reversed

Posted July 23, 2009, at 10:46 a.m.

ROCKLAND, Maine — In a reversal of its earlier decision, the state will allow Matinicus Island fishermen to be back in their boats tending their traps and earning their livelihood beginning Monday.

The Department of Marine Resources initially had suspended fishing around the island for two weeks in the aftermath of this week’s alleged shooting of one lobsterman by another in a dispute over fishing territory.

The decision to reopen the fishing grounds was reached Thursday in Knox County Superior Court in response to requests for preliminary injunctions against the state filed by two Matinicus lobstermen affected by the closing. The cases were settled before coming to trial.

In their lawsuits, Joseph Bray and Clayton Philbrook contended the shutdown was “an extraordinary action which exceeds the scope of emergency authority” granted to DMR Commissioner George LaPointe.

LaPointe issued the shutdown order on Tuesday in response to the alleged shooting Monday morning of Chris Young, 41, by Vance Bunker, 68. Young was shot in the neck with a .22-caliber handgun and is recovering. Bunker was charged with elevated aggravated assault and is free on $125,000 bail. He has been ordered not to return to the island.

More than 30 Matinicus residents were in the courtroom Thursday to watch how Justice Jeffrey Hjelm would rule on the requests to overturn the DMR’s shutdown order, which took effect a half-hour before sunrise that morning.

Commissioner LaPointe, Marine Patrol Col. Joseph Fessenden and Assistant Attorneys General Mark Randlett and Chris Taub were there to represent the state. Advocating for the fishermen were Camden attorney Christopher MacLean and Matinicus attorney Nat Hussey.

The seeds of the settlement apparently were planted when attorneys for all the parties met in chambers with Justice Hjelm before the proceeding. That discussion lasted about a half-hour and was followed by additional discussions near the jury box that included LaPointe and Fessenden. Hussey and MacLean would leave the group every so often to consult with their clients.

By the time Justice Hjelm opened the hearing at about 9:45 a.m. it was evident from the smiles of joy on the faces of the islanders and their animated discussions that a settlement in their favor had been reached.

Randlett explained that the parties had reached an accommodation on the emergency rule, which Hjelm had described as an “unprecedented issue.” Randlett said the department would issue a new rule that day, ending the closure Monday morning.

The agreement narrows the shutdown to Thursday, Friday and Saturday, since it is against the law in Maine to haul traps on Sundays from June through August.

In addition, Randlett said the parties had agreed to hold discussions on the island beginning Saturday in an attempt to quell the ongoing anger over fishing territory and gear disputes.

“Hopefully, this will resolve a number of these issues,” Randlett told Hjelm. “We want to get things under control.”

Hjelm commended both sides for reaching an agreement. He said he scheduled the hearing because of the emergency nature of the complaints and the understanding that lobster fishing was virtually the island’s entire economy.

“It appears to have been a constructive discussion of the issues,” Hjelm said. “The incident of this week, the allegations of criminal conduct and the department’s response, has been something of a shock to the system of the fishery.”

After the hearing, LaPointe said the emergency rule was necessary to get the island residents focused on working together, and that Thursday’s settlement accomplished that. He expressed hope that the coming discussions would resolve a situation that has simmered for years. LaPointe said the department had been confronted with gear issues in the past, but never in such a violent manner.

“It’s in everybody’s best interest to find a solution and do things differently than what happened this week,” he said.

After the shooting, the Marine Patrol, Knox County Sheriff’s Department, Maine State Police and U.S. Coast Guard instituted 24-hour law enforcement coverage on the island. Fessenden, who will accompany LaPointe to Matinicus for discussions Saturday, said he hoped things would have calmed down enough by then to relax the coverage.

MacLean said the fishermen were stunned by the ruling to close the fishery because it directly affected their livelihoods. He said the initial ruling did not give them enough time to pull all of their traps. He said the sinking rope they now use has resulted in the need to tend traps more frequently. Left alone in the water for two weeks, the traps likely would have become tangled and hundreds of thousands of dollars of gear could have been lost or ruined. He noted in the lawsuit that the island’s 35 lobstermen fish about 28,000 traps.

“We got what we wanted and we didn’t have to spend the day in court,” MacLean said outside the courtroom. “The state of Maine issued a ruling, the island community stood up to the state and the state backed down. Backing down was the right decision, and now the state and the community have to work to resolve the situation. The fishermen are back to work and the island is open for business.”