MATINICUS ISLAND, Maine — Lobstermen and other islanders caught in the crossfire of a lobster trap war jammed into the 100-year-old Matinicus Congregational Church meeting room Saturday to hear what Maine state officials could do to protect their livelihood.
But Department of Marine Resources Commissioner George LaPointe, Marine Patrol Col. Joseph Fessenden and Knox County Sheriff Donna Dennison said the meeting was just a first step in the process of moving forward after last week’s shooting of a lobsterman in a dispute over fishing territory.
“We just want to resolve things, so people don’t get hurt,” Dennison said at the meeting’s outset.
Saturday was the last of three days of suspended fishing mandated by the state after the shooting, which Fessenden said is the most violent episode in his 30 years with the Marine Patrol. LaPointe initially had suspended fishing for two weeks in hopes that island tensions would cool, but the state revised that decision Thursday in Knox County Superior Court.
Lobsterman and Matinicus Island resident Joseph Bray opened the meeting with an update on the health of Chris Young, 41, who was shot in the neck with a .22 caliber handgun Monday allegedly by Vance Bunker, 68. Bunker was charged with elevated aggravated assault and is free on $125,000 bail. He has been ordered not to return to the island. Young is recuperating at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, and is doing better, Bray told the 50 or so people in the church.
“If you guys don’t pray, start praying, because he needs it all,” Bray said. “The whole island needs it all. Something bad happened to two families on the island. We want to turn it into something good.”
Something good, for many islanders, might resemble the conservation zone that has protected Monhegan Island’s fishing grounds for a decade. That zone was enacted by the Maine Legislature, officials said, but the idea was born after a handful of mainland lobstermen decided to fish off Monhegan in 1997. Island fisheries have had traditional boundaries instead of legal ones, islanders said.
Monhegan’s lobstermen weren’t pleased, to say the least, and turned to the state for help.
“We had some confrontations, some fights. But we got them in a room. We said, ‘Let’s call a truce,’ and it went to the Legislature,” Fessenden said. “The zone resulted from a trap war, trap cutting and violence. That’s why I bring it up.”
The situation at Monhegan was similar to that on Matinicus, Fessenden said — except that the Matinicus trap war has spiraled even further out of control.
“We really need to have vandalism, trap cutting, threats and intimidation stop,” he said. “We need to get through the season.”
It also would be possible to adopt a conservation zone similar to that on Swan’s Island, which has a lower trap limit but is not closed to other lobstermen, LaPointe told the room.
“I’d love to see proposals,” he said.
Islanders and state officials agreed that the violence at Matinicus originated after an off-island lobsterman set traps in the area that Matinicus lobstermen consider their fishing territory.
“The fisherman swatted a hornet’s nest by setting 400 traps,” Bray said. “He’s still fishing, while we got closed. That stinks like a big old skunk.”
Though Fessenden said he understands islanders’ frustrations and supports making unofficial fishing territory official, he told them the Marine Patrol can’t legally stop someone from coming into the area to set traps.
“I actually support the territorial thing,” Fessenden said. “I think if we didn’t have the territories, this fishery would be sunk.”
Islanders need to be patient, he said, as they start the process of changing the law or the regulations to achieve what the fishermen want: better control over who can set traps in their waters.
Already the U.S. Coast Guard, the Marine Patrol and Knox County Sheriff’s Office have stepped down their extra patrols of Matinicus, Fessenden said. Normally, just five Marine Patrol officers cover the region extending from the Penobscot River down to Thomaston.
“We’re really hurting for people in this area,” Fessenden said.
Weston Ames is one of two island lobstermen whom Bunker was forbidden to contact after the shooting, as part of his bail conditions. Ames said islanders need their own zone.
“It’s not about greed; it’s about self-preservation,” he said. “Matinicus is an isolated island. This is our only residence. In order to maintain it, we need to go lobstering.”
LaPointe said Maine lobstermen have a good reputation for self-regulation.
“I go to other states and people ask me why your lobster industry works so well,” he said. “Community compliance is the reason.”
But islander Donna Rogers said the state is asking too much from the community.
“As long as he’s out there in our waters, you haven’t defused the problem,” she said of the off-island lobsterman.
After the meeting, islanders gathered outside the church in a thickening fog. Most seemed to appreciate the tone of the meeting and the prospect of having their own fishing grounds.
“It was a good first step,” said Nat Hussey, an island lawyer who started to file suit against the state last week on behalf of lobsterman Clayton Philbrook. “The island doesn’t own the waters. But it does depend on that revenue to keep basic systems going.”
Rogers, however, said she continues to worry.
“All we can do is urge our neighbors to stay calm and wait for the process,” she said. “Hopefully, they will.”