As discussed in my post on lobster trap wars, Maine lobster fishermen sometimes rely on vigilantly methods to defend their fishing grounds. Often these altercations are confined to sabotaging the traps of another fishermen. There are instances, however when lobster trap wars escalate to the point of extreme sabotage or physical violence.
Lobster Trap Wars in Friendship, Cushing and Owl’s Head, Maine
In 2012 under the cloak of darkness, two lobster boats were cut loose from their moorings in Friendship, Maine. By the time the lobster boats were discovered the following morning, one of the boats was almost completely sunk while the other had grounded out on a beach. While people in the town were reticent to label the incident the start of a lobster trap war in Friendship Maine, the boat sinkings were suspicions and sinister.
In 2009, three boats were sunk in Owl’s Head, Maine. The owner of one of the sunken boats was not from the area but, as he had a long-term girlfriend in Owl’s Head, had started fishing in the area. He interpreted the boat sinking as a sign that some locals felt he was encroaching on their territory.
In 2009, a lobsterman from Cushing, Maine faced charges for taking a knife to 22 traps belonging to a fellow fisherman. In May of the following year, fire was the weapon of choice when seeking retribution – a pile of 150 lobster traps were burnt in a lobster fisherman’s yard of the same town.
Lobster Trap Wars in Machiasport, Maine
In recent years, the fishing grounds of Machiasport have been home to flaring tempers and violence. In 2010 Marine Patrol officers responded to reports of over 600 traps being cut as well as the ramming of one fishing vessel by another. In August of that year the fishing community, which already had a half-dozen protection from harassment orders in effect, saw one lobsterman assault another with a four-foot lobster trap runner. The victim of the violence had allegedly broken the windows out of the first fisherman’s pickup truck. The newspaper reporting of the incident confirmed the violence was down to fishing territory issues.
Lobster Trap Wars in Portland, Maine
Several newspapers have reported an incident in Portland Harbor where a lobster fishing crew rammed their boat into another vessel, jumped aboard it pirate-style and scuffled with the other crew before getting tossed overboard. I’ve not been able to gather much information on the incident but it’s likely to have been fueled by a fishing territory infringement.
Lobster Trap Wars in Criehaven, Maine.
One infamous case I researched for my book, How to Catch A Lobster In Down East Maine, involved two Maine lobster fishermen duking it out with a pitchfork and a fish gaff. According to the court documents, David McMahan and Gerald Brown both fished the waters around the small island of Criehaven and had had professional differences for quite some time. One day, Brown discovered an obscene drawing on one of his lobster buoys and, assuming that McMahan was the perpetrator, confronted him on his dock. The two men began arguing with each other and the verbal insults quickly escalated to physical violence, with McMahan using a gaff to clobber Brown and, according to McMahan, Brown using a pitchfork to jab at McMahan. After the confrontation Brown was bleeding from the head quite badly yet still had the stamina to sell his lobsters and moor his boat before driving himself to the hospital.
Lobster Trap Wars in Matinicus Island, Maine
Perhaps the most famous lobster trap war stories of all hail from the small island of Matinicus, Maine. Matinicus is the most isolated of Maine’s 15 year-round island communities. The island has no paved roads and very limited amenities. In the winter, the population shrinks to about 40 residents and the ferry comes just once a month. Matinicus attracts rugged individuals. Usually these individuals are simple hard working citizens who eschew conventional society. At times however, Matinicus lobstermen have been known to eschew the law as well.
One year, a Matinicus lobsterman fired a shotgun across the bow of another fisherman’s boat when that boat crossed his wake at high speed. Another year, smelly lobster bait was stealthily dumped into a Matinicus resident’s gasoline tank. In the summer of 2009, Matinicus attracted national media attention after one fisherman shot another in the neck in the midst of a heated trap war.
The Matinicus trap war kicked off when a man from Wheeler’s Bay named Alan Miller decided to set his traps in Matinicus fishing territory. Though Alan’s wife and stepfather, Vance Bunker, were residents of Matinicus, many other Matinicus residents felt Alan did not have the right to lobster fish their grounds. Soon, traps were getting cut and accusations were being made. Early one July morning, all hell broke loose. First, Vance’s boat was boarded by another Matinicus fisherman, Christopher Young. Christopher wrestled Vance to the ground and threatened to kill him before Vance emptied a can of pepper spray in his face. Later that morning, there was a boat chase and verbal threats were made over the VHF. By the afternoon, there was a lobsterman face-off at Matinicus pier. Guns were drawn and Young was shot in the neck. In the aftermath, Bunker was arrested and Young was helicoptered to a hospital for emergency surgery. Bunker was later acquitted of the crime after testifying that he had acted in self-defense.
Though these Maine lobster war stories make for good reading, I want to stress that violence is an extremely small part of the rhythm of life in Maine’s fishing communities. Even Matinicus, which has garnered a reputation for lobster trap wars and outlaw behavior, is largely just an island of hardworking fishermen with the strength of spirit to survive an isolated way of living.