Lobsterman on trial for shooting rival in neck
Matinicus, a remote island located 20 miles off the coast of Rockland Maine, is a quintessential fishing town. With a year-round population of only a few dozen residents, the island features a one-room school, a church with summer services and a small grocery store. Travel writers from The Boston Globe describe the island as, "rugged but beautiful, with sweeping ocean views and sandy beaches...one of the last places in Maine where the old Down East lifestyle survives in anything like its pure form...unspoiled and unpretentious." According to Matinicus Island Vacations, a travel agency in New Hampshire, "Everything is old-fashioned and basic. It's a visit to a simpler, perhaps better world."
There is trouble brewing in Matinicus, however, and it has been looming for decades. What could possibly shatter the tranquility of this otherwise peaceful community? Lobster turf wars. Although there are no written laws defining private territories for lobstering, local fishermen have created their own rules. These so-called turf wars are a serious problem on the island, but they rarely turn violent. Last summer, a dispute ended this tradition of nonviolence when it escalated to gunfire. Vance Bunker, 68, was arrested in July 2009 for elevated aggravated assault after he shot a rival fisherman, Christopher Young, in the neck. His daughter, Janan Miller, was charged with reckless conduct in connection to the shooting. Young underwent surgery in Lewiston, where he was later released in stable condition.
Both Bunker and Miller, who allege that Young and his half-brother, Weston Ames, boarded their boat illegally and later made threats at the town wharf, claimed self-defense.
"I had no choice," Bunker said in court. "I was protecting my daughter." In addition, Philip Cohen, Bunker's defense attorney, noted, "What type of father would pull the trigger? The real question is, what father wouldn't?"
They faced trial earlier this month at Knox County's Superior Court. Last Friday, March 12, after a day and a half days of deliberation, jurors found Bunker and Miller not guilty on all charges. Young, who testified that he now has limited use of his left arm and hand, said that he plans to leave the fishing industry.
"It's lucky people are still alive," Colonel Joseph Fessenden, chief of marine law enforcement, said in a press release. "It's crazy what happened."
In the past, feuding fishermen have been known to cut each other's fishing lines, to leave threatening notes in a bottle inside another lobsterman's trap or to cut out the doors of a rival trap, allowing the lobsters to escape. Lobstermen will even ram their boats into a competitor's vessel. One time, a man who was prevented from fishing on Matinicus dumped a population of raccoons on the island to disrupt the community.
This "territorial system is a standard part of the social organization of the lobster-fishing industry...The boundaries are maintained by violence or threat, but the violence is patterned according to a codified set of rules," Dr. James Acheson '62, professor of anthropology and marine sciences at the University of Maine, wrote in his book The Lobster Gangs of Maine. Although Fessenden acknowledged this century-old "self-policing" system that lobstermen have come to follow, he emphasized that Maine laws must still be respected. "We don't let them do their cowboy thing," he said.
Law enforcement remains difficult. "The island has a very bad reputation up and down the coast," 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."
In the Bunker vs. Young case, both sides suspected that the other was cutting their trap lines. Lost traps cost between $80 and $100 each. In total, an average lobsterman could lose thousands of dollars in traps.
In the past, lobstermen have brandished guns and fired warning shots to scare away competitors. However, Bunker's use of a potentially deadly weapon demonstrated that Maine's "lobster wars" are far from being resolved.
"I think the whole lobster industry is in trouble with prices so low and the economy so bad," Knox County Sheriff Donna Dennison said in a press release. "It just added to the tension out there."