ROCKLAND, Maine — Law enforcement officials appealed to residents of coastal communities Friday to help combat the recent tide of violence and vandalism within some segments of Maine’s lobster industry.
Maj. John Fetterman of the Maine Marine Patrol said there have always been personal and professional conflicts among fishermen that have spilled over into the industry. But the alarming flare-up in violent incidents in Knox County — including one lobsterman shot and three boats sabotaged — is worse than anything Fetterman has witnessed in his 32 years of law enforcement.
Representatives of the Marine Patrol, Knox County Sheriff’s Office, Maine State Police and U.S. Coast Guard gathered in Rockland on Friday morning to discuss their collaborative responses to the rising tensions and to send a message to local residents.
“We would like to send out an appeal that we need even more community involvement, more community information and ownership by the community in working with law enforcement to restore peaceful fishing activities off our waters and to bring a safe working environment for all local residents,” Fetterman said.
Knox County’s tight-knit fishing community is abuzz with rumors and speculation this week after two lobster boats were sunk and another partially submerged in Owls Head late Tuesday or early Wednesday. The boats’ intake valves or hoses apparently were cut, causing the vessels to sink within hours.
Officers from the various agencies declined on Friday to comment on the case, which is still under investigation. No arrests have been made, but the four agencies have stepped up patrols in the area as well as other nearby communities where tensions among fishermen are reportedly high.
It is widely believed that the vandalism resulted from territorial disputes among lobstermen, who are often fiercely protective of their fishing grounds. There is also widespread speculative talk about who was behind the vandalism.
“Suspicions and fact are two different things,” said Chief Deputy Ernest McIntosh of the Knox County Sheriff’s Office. But McIntosh said the agencies are concerned about retaliatory acts for the sabotaged boats, which is why authorities were urging the community to continue cooperating with law enforcement.
“It all bears on communication,” he said.
A turf war also was believed to be behind the July 20 shooting of 41-year-old lobsterman Chris Young on Matinicus Island. Police have charged Vance Bunker, 68, with shooting Young in the neck.
The Department of Marine Resources temporarily closed the lobster fishery around Matinicus, which has developed a reputation as the “Wild West” of Maine because of past conflicts between lobstermen. The officers said Friday that the situation on Matinicus has since calmed somewhat, although the agencies continue increased patrols there.
But Knox County’s fishing communities are not the only ones where tensions are apparently rising. Fetterman described the number of fishing-related incidents — ranging from cut traps to vandalized boats — as being “on the high side of normal” this year.
“They have escalated to a crescendo here. But in other parts of the state we are taking in complaints daily of trap cuttings and of fisheries disputes from Kittery to Eastport,” Fetterman said. “This isn’t isolated solely to Knox County.”
Fetterman said he could not give a tidy answer for why 2009 has been so turbulent so far. Certainly part of the tension has to do with the recession, low prices for lobster and the widespread closures of Maine’s shellfish grounds because of red tide.
In many cases, Fetterman said, the underlying disputes are “deeply entrenched” in communities and families. He also sought to assuage fears that people who cooperate with law enforcement could, themselves, become targets of retaliation.
“We certainly are accustomed to handling information discreetly and confidentially,” he said. “I want to assure people that for their cooperation with law enforcement, we will take every effort to protect them and their confidentiality.”
Anyone with information regarding the vandalism to the Owls Head boats is asked to call the Knox County Sheriff’s Office at 975-1711.