Lobster dispute turns ugly


James Wright, Senior Editor

Published on
July 22, 2009

Maine’s lobster industry has had its fair share of clashes: lobstermen versus state fishery regulators over catch limits; lobstermen versus wholesalers over low prices; lobstermen versus lobstermen over prime fishing spots. Those lobstermen can be territorial, a tough lot, and often for good reason: This is how they make a living, so don’t you mess with it. But what happened this week on a tiny island where lobster fishing is really one of the only jobs around went beyond any dockside skirmish I’ve ever caught wind of.

Lobster fishing has been temporarily halted on Matinicus Island by Maine authorities, but not because of red tide, right whales or quota overages. It seems that continued acts of vandalism to the competition’s lobster gear and other territory disputes spilled into violence that nearly claimed one lobsterman’s life.

According to state police, 68-year-old Vance Bunker shot fellow lobsterman Chris Young, 41, in the neck with a .22-caliber handgun during an argument. Nearly 200 traps had been cut over the weekend, possibly prompting the encounter, which is not the first time fishing rights-disputes have turned ugly. 

Someone told me years ago about a dispute on the very same island that included one lobsterman attacking another with a gaffe. And I also recall the ongoing saga earlier this decade between native fishermen in New Brunswick’s Miramichi Peninsula and Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans that included boat ramming and warning shots being fired.

There’s only about 80 residents on Matinicus in the summer, and according to Maine Department of Marine Resources Commissioner George Lapointe, there are 31 licenses on the island — fishing is the only show in town. While there have been “firearms brandished and firearms shot” in the past, he says, nobody’s ever been shot.

“There’s an element of having their own set of rules that has gone awry,” Lapointe told me on Wednesday. “We want to crack that somehow. To think that’s the right status quo is the wrong place to start.”

Lapointe added there is no timeline for the time-out. (Bunker, by the way, was free on USD 125,000 surety bail; Young was listed in stable condition.)

It’s been a rough year or so for Maine’s trap haulers, what with the economy in the chum bucket and the summer weather turning out to be a real bummer. I’ll do my part and crack into a lobster or two real soon. Just hold the bloodshed, please.

Thank you,
James Wright
Associate Editor
SeaFood Business

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