A turf war in the lobster-rich waters off Maine escalated into a dispute that left a lobsterman with a gunshot wound to the neck and another in jail, law-enforcement officials said Tuesday.
Territorial feuds are not unusual among Maine's lobstermen, but it is rare for them to end in gunplay. Monday's shooting came as lobstermen struggle with prices so low that some are talking about tying up their boats until prices rebound.
"I think the whole lobster industry is in trouble with prices so low and the economy so bad," said Knox County Sheriff Donna Dennison. "It just added to the tension out there."
Vance Bunker, 68, is accused of shooting Chris Young, 41, with a .22-caliber handgun Monday morning on Matinicus, a remote island with only a few dozen permanent residents. At the time of the shooting, officers from the Maine Marine Patrol and the Knox County Sheriff's Office were already on the island to investigate an earlier altercation between Bunker and Young.
The shooting took place on the island's granite pier and Marine Patrol Officer Wes Dean was on a nearby boat, officials said. Dean arrested Bunker, and Young was flown by plane to the mainland and then by helicopter to a hospital in Lewiston, where he underwent surgery. He was in good condition Tuesday afternoon.
Bunker is charged with elevated aggravated assault and was released from jail Tuesday after posting property bond worth $125,000.
In response to the shooting, Department of Marine Resources Commissioner George Lapointe signed an emergency rule prohibiting lobstering in the waters surrounding Matinicus for two weeks beginning Thursday. The Marine Patrol and Coast Guard stationed vessels at the island to keep a 24-hour presence.
The measures serve as a wake-up call for islanders and as a public safety precaution, said Marine Patrol Col. Joe Fessenden.
"It's lucky people are still alive. It's crazy what happened," Fessenden said.
Nearly every summer, tensions flare among Maine's lobster fishermen over who has the right to place traps in specified areas. The origins of the industry's unofficial territorial system go back to about 1890, said University of Maine professor James Acheson, who has written two books on the subject.
Mostly, those territorial rights stay within local fishing families or among long-timers in the same harbors.
When fishermen feel their turf is being encroached upon, they send signals to the offending lobsterman by leaving a note in a bottle in the trap, by tying a knot in the buoy rope or by cutting out the door to the trap so lobsters can escape. Sometimes they resort to cutting trap lines — resulting in lost traps, which can cost $80 to $100 each.
Reputation for lawlessness
Lobstermen have been known to ram their boats into each other and occasionally show a gun. Once in Portland Harbor, a boat crew jumped onto another boat and struggled with another crew before they were tossed overboard.
On occasion, lobstermen fire warning shots, and Acheson remembers a lobsterman once firing bullets through another boat's windshield in Penobscot Bay. On Matinicus a few years ago, two fishermen were charged after one of them fired a shotgun at the other.
For the most part, Maine fishermen respect their established territories, Acheson said.
Matinicus has a reputation for lawlessness and as a place where locals take matters into their own hands. The island, which has only 40 or 50 year-round residents and is about 20 miles from Rockland, is so far-removed that Maine's state ferry makes only four trips a month there in the summer and one a month in the winter.
"The island up and down the coast has a very bad reputation," Acheson said. "I was talking to a man from Stonington who said fishermen on Matinicus think of themselves as being outside the United States. What he meant by that was the law simply doesn't apply to them."