Matinicus Mayhem

Posted July 24, 2009, at 5:52 p.m.

Life on Maine’s offshore islands can be seen as a concentrated version of the character of the state itself — independent, self-sufficient, community-minded but with an undercurrent of libertarianism. The recent conflict that led to a shooting on Matinicus Island, a rugged fishing outpost farther from the mainland than any other Maine community, has residents feeling they are being painted unfairly as “pirates.” As with most thumbnail sketches, there is some truth to the image, but far more to the picture.

On the one hand, the islands offer an environment in which Wild West-type conflict can breed.

Many islands with year-round populations struggle with the influx of wealthy summer residents whose presence doesn’t always meld comfortably with those who struggle to make a living there through the lean winter months. Law enforcement is often a part-time presence, and when an officer leaves the island, word spreads quickly. The final ingredient is lobstering, a business that attracts those who chafe under rules and regulations, and who treasure the freedom that comes with being self-employed.

Even in good times, lobstering can spark conflict. Lobstermen are suspicious of newcomers, often fret about someone stealing their catch, and believe they have the right to work certain waters. Firing the proverbial — or literal — shot across the bow of an interloper is not new. With the recession being especially unkind to lobstering, because of the luxury nature of the product, fishermen are on edge.

But lobstermen must remember that the ocean bottom and crawling crustaceans are state-controlled resources. A reader posting on the BDN’s Web site wondered what would happen if deer hunters staked out and defended their territory with the same passion.

The state has been monitoring the situation on Matinicus since May. The Department of Marine Resources called a timeout on fishing until Monday. The move is punitive of the innocent, but also prudent.

The other side of island life deserves description — offering to pick up groceries for a neighbor while on the mainland, looking in on an elderly widow during the winter, contacting a fellow fisherman when his boat has slipped its mooring. Lynn Hand of Bucksport notes that Vance Bunker, the Matinicus man accused of shooting fellow lobsterman Chris Young, has shown this island altruism. A tugboat Ms. Hand’s father was piloting sank in January 1992, and Mr. Bunker and two other island lobstermen braved the winter waters to come to the rescue, along with the Coast Guard. “Vance and his men found them first, and Vance pulled my father to safety,” she reported. The two men became close friends until her father’s death.

Islanders and lobstermen should not be painted as pirates. Dwindling profits have led to vandalism, if not violence, in other businesses — newspaper competitors have been known to sabotage each other’s presses, and cab companies have slashed the tires of independent challengers. Matinicus residents can shed the pirate image by working out their differences civilly, or by banding together to get through these lean times. As the poet John Donne wrote: “No man is an island.”

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