March 20, 2018
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Tensions simmer as lobster season nears

By Nick Sambides Jr., BDN Staff

ROCKLAND, Maine — On a sparkling, springlike morning, Spc. Matt Talbot of the Maine Marine Patrol helped launch his agency’s fastest boat into Rockland Harbor.

Then he opened the throttle, and the Protector’s 450-horsepower engines churned calm green water into a froth of white as he zoomed away from shore.

In emergencies, the boat can propel mainland-based law enforcement agents to Matinicus Island in as little as half an hour, Talbot said — although he would prefer it if 2010 doesn’t bring as many fishing crises as 2009.

“It would be nice if the lobsters come through. and if the guys can get paid for them,” the eight-year Maine Marine Patrol veteran said. “And if everybody gets along. Everybody hopes for that.”

Days after a Knox County jury found Edwin Vance Bunker and his daughter Janan Miller not guilty of charges connected with the shooting of Matinicus fisherman Christopher Young on the town dock last July, patrol officers, state officials and fishermen and others are beginning to get ready for the busier summer lobster sea-son. Many are wondering how the shooting, trap vandalism and other tensions of 2009 will affect Maine’s most valuable commercial fishery, which continues to suffer from high costs and low prices.

According to preliminary statistics from the state Department of Marine Resources, which manages the state’s lobster fishery, last year’s 75.6 million-pound catch, the highest on record, was worth $221.6 million — about $23 million less than in 2008.

“I’m concerned,” said Col. Joseph Fessenden of the Maine Marine Patrol. “We’re basically undermanned and understaffed in that whole area.”

He said that fishermen who make threats and carry through with threats may learn that there are consequences for those actions.

“Somebody got shot. Somebody’s going to have injuries for the rest of his life,” Fessenden said. “It did rip apart the community.”

‘Martial Law’

Immediately after the verdict was handed down last Friday, Fessenden made arrangements for a patrol boat to head to Matinicus and other offshore islands the next day. The agency also arranged for more boats and watercraft in case there was an immediate need to get to the island. There wasn’t, but the rumors of unrest and civil disobedience are rampant, Fessenden said.

“It’s hard to separate the fact from fiction,” he said.

Law enforcement agencies will meet next week to discuss some of the particular challenges posed by Matinicus, he said.

On the island itself, many were reluctant to talk about the shooting, the trial or the verdict on Tuesday.

But there is one byproduct of last summer’s trouble that frustrated Matinicus lobstermen are more than happy to discuss — LD 1604, a bill under consideration by the state Legislature that would clarify DMR’s ability to close fishing areas if the commissioner deems it necessary.

Lobstermen are allowed to fish year-round, though more lobsters are caught in the summer and fall months, due both to increased demand and easier working conditions. According to Talbot, lobsters move farther offshore in the winter and rough weather conditions often mean fishermen who set traps might not be able to check them much. The fishery grows more active at the beginning of May, he said.

According to the bill, however, emergency closures could be made to “avoid an immediate threat to public safety or welfare.” An area could be closed for as long as a month without a public hearing.

That is more than enough time to ruin fishermen’s credit, said Clayton Philbrook, a lobsterman and island selectman who opposes the bill.

“It’s martial law,” he fumed in a telephone interview. “When [Commissioner George Lapointe] has the authority to close somebody down and not have to work with the local communities to solve the problem, what else do you call it?”

Shooting aftershocks

Island lobstermen reeled last summer when Lapointe ordered a two-week fishing shutdown in the aftermath of the shooting. But it was shortened to three days after Philbrook and another lobsterman filed lawsuits against the state, contending that the shutdown exceeded the scope of emergency authority.

Lapointe said Tuesday that he still believes that last summer’s shutdown was justified for public safety reasons and that the proposed law simply solidifies his authority.

“I’d be happy if we never used [a shutdown] again in my whole career,” Lapointe said.

For island lobsterman and lawyer Nat Hussey, that kind of assurance is not enough.

“It’s a really dramatic expansion of the commissioner’s authority,” Hussey said, arguing that the shutdown did not help cool tempers. “I think it’s completely the opposite. It was a very inflammatory thing to do.”

Matinicus fishermen were heartened last summer when Lapointe and others made a special trip to the island to talk about ways to ease the tensions.

They discussed the possibility of creating a separate fishing zone around Matinicus, similar to the Monhegan and Swan’s Island zones.

Island lobstermen, even those who had a hard time being in the same room, met later to talk about specifics, Hussey said. Ideas included closing fishing part of the year to promote conservation, limiting traps allowed in the zone and having “different levels of licensure,” he said.

“It was an encouraging thing,” he said. “It was just stopped in its tracks a few weeks later.”

Lapointe said that a bill submitted by islanders was rejected by legislative leaders.

“It was tried but failed,” he said. “People were concerned about the Balkanization of [fisheries] in the state.”

‘Tip of the iceberg’

At the Ship to Shore Lobster Co. in Owls Head, co-owner Anna Mason and a small crew took advantage of Tuesday’s good weather to make some repairs. One carpenter was Mike Gustin of Owls Head, who said that he started lobster fishing when he was 9 years old.

“We were always making a good living,” he said. “Now we’re all forced to be part-timers.”

Gustin and other lobstermen there blamed the tough economic climate in the last two years for many of the territorial tensions that have escalated into violent acts too close to home.

Last August, three lobster boats in Owls Head were scuttled just off the lobster company’s wharf in a costly act of vandalism, and the fishermen know many of those involved in the Matinicus dispute.

“There’s going to be more situations, too. This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Gustin said. “It’s just a matter of time before the bank starts foreclosing on people.”

A surfeit of lobstermen and bait prices that are just too high add to the pressure, he said. As soon as lobstermen started making better money in August, the boat sinkings, shootings and trap cuttings went away, the men said.

But to James Acheson, a University of Maine anthropology and marine sciences professor who wrote the book “The Lobster Gangs of Maine,” the idea that the bad economy is responsible for the trouble is just a red herring. What is really going on is the local enforcement of informal territorial rules, he said, adding that costs are just as high and prices as low from New Jersey to New Brunswick.

“The vast majority of these people are not causing problems and chopping off gear,” Acheson said.

Although territorial disputes are not a new phenomenon, it does seem like things are changing for midcoast lobstermen.

None of Gustin’s three children is a lobstermen, for example.

“I wouldn’t tell my kids to shoot themselves in the foot,” he said.

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