MATINICUS ISLAND, Maine — A year after an island feud among lobstermen erupted in gunfire, one of the two lobstermen on the receiving end of island justice is speaking out against a mainland jury’s decision to acquit the fellow lobsterman who fired a near-fatal shot.
Weston Ames said he remembers a bullet whistling by his head during a confrontation with Vance Bunker, a 69-year-old longtime lobsterman on Matinicus Island. His stepbrother Christopher Young, 42, wasn’t so lucky. The second bullet hit him in the neck, leaving him with lingering health problems.
“The truth of it is, he tried to kill two of us — for no reason,” said Ames, 44, standing on the very spot on the Steamboat Wharf where the confrontation took place.
Maine’s lobstermen have long lived under unofficial territorial rules dictating who can set their lobster traps where along the state’s long, ragged coast. To protect lucrative fishing grounds, fishermen have been known to cut lobster trap lines, harass each other at sea and, on occasion, brandish weapons.
On Matinicus Island, events came to a head on July 20, 2009. That’s when Bunker and his daughter Janan Miller drew guns on Young and Ames. Bunker fired twice, missing Ames but striking Young.
Bunker and his son-in-law Alan Miller believed Young and Ames were cutting Miller’s trap lines, while Young and Ames had accused Bunker and Miller of doing the same to them.
Bunker, who was considered a pillar of the Matinicus community, said he fired only because he feared for his daughter’s life after Ames grabbed the barrel of the shotgun she was holding. Bunker and his daughter were acquitted of all charges by a jury in Knox County Superior Court.
Ames remains shaken up a year later. He recalls looking down at his brother, who had blood gushing from his neck. “That’s hard medicine to have your brother look up at you and say, ‘Don’t let me die here,”’ he said.
He said it hurt when jurors found Bunker not guilty.
“That was almost as bad as getting shot at. It made it feel like you didn’t matter,” he said.
Islanders are still hesitant to talk about the shooting. It’s a sensitive subject in such a tight-knit place where barely two dozen people live year-round.
But they’ll tell you that Bunker, for the most part, is no longer a welcome sight on the island. In the weeks after the jury’s verdict last March, Bunker’s pickup was spray-painted and his tires were flattened. His island home is now for sale, residents say.
Speaking from Owls Head, on the mainland, Sari Bunker, Bunker’s wife, said the episode has been stressful and recounting it would be like “picking a scab off a wound.”
She declined further comment. Her husband didn’t return a message.
Young and Ames have filed lawsuits against Bunker seeking damages. Despite suffering permanent damage to his left arm and hand, Young has been trying to pull traps this summer with assistance, but he’s “not doing too well at it,” said his attorney, Bill Robitzek of Lewiston.
The lobster wars are now simmering.
Traps have been cut in Friendship, Cushing and Saco, officials said. In Stonington, somebody cut 11 lobster boats loose from their moorings this summer. The State Fire Marshal’s Office is investigating a fire in May that burned more than 150 lobster traps that were stacked in a lobsterman’s yard in Cushing.
But things are relatively quiet on Matinicus.
Representatives from the Maine Marine Patrol, the Knox County Sheriff’s Department, the Coast Guard and the Maine State Police meet regularly to discuss unrest among lobstermen in the Penobscot Bay region. But with the lobster season going full bore, there haven’t been any reports of trap-cutting or violence on Matinicus.
“Quiet is a good way to describe it,” said Marine Patrol Maj. Alan Talbot. “But I don’t think it would take too much to kindle things.”