Maine Lobster Wars

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in: Fishing

When a lobster fisherman on the remote Maine island of Matinicus allegedly shot a fellow lobsterman point blank in the neck in broad daylight this summer, it shook the tiny island community of 50 full-time residents to the core.  A long simmering lobster turf war, it seemed, had grown violent as prices continue to fall for what is considered, in many parts of the world, to be the epitome of luxury dining.

Vance Bunker, a 68-year-old fisherman, was charged with elevated aggravated assault in the July 20 shooting of Chris Young, 41, on the town’s granite wharf with a .22 pistol. Bunker was immediately apprehended by state Marine Patrol officers, who were aboard Young’s boat. Bunker has since been released on bail, while Young, who may have suffered neurological damage, was reported as of Aug. 1 to be in the rehabilitation wing of a Maine hospital.

The complicated dispute, which involved Bunker’s son-in-law, also a lobster fisherman, grew out of turf wars over fishing grounds off Matinicus, which lobstermen say are the richest such resource anywhere in the world. Boats were reportedly vandalized, onshore property damaged and lines connecting to valuable lobster traps cut as local fishermen attempted to keep out newcomers. The lobstering world is an archaic one, where territories are divided according to mysterious rules that are rigidly adhered to, even if acknowledged only by fishermen themselves. Claim stakes are handed down over generations and it is almost impossible for newcomers to break in.

Bunker was ordered to stay away from Matinicus. He is scheduled to appear in Knox County Superior Court in Rockland, Maine, again at the end of September. Meanwhile, civil court suits against him have been filed by Young and another lobsterman, Young’s stepbrother, whom Bunker also allegedly shot at but missed.

Matinicus, 20 miles off the coast at Rockland, has a long-standing reputation for administering its own style of justice, in lobstering as in other disputes. When the state Department of Marine Resources slapped a two-week moratorium on fishing in island waters, it looked like an overreaction.

“What are they gonna do?” asked one fisherman, who’s not from Matinicus but familiar with the situation. “If they can’t go fishing, they’ll hang around drinking. And if they think they’ve got a problem now. . . .” He left the conclusion unspoken. On reflection, the department apparently agreed and cut the closure back to a long weekend during which, authorities hoped, tempers would cool and life on the bold coast would return to normal.

Which isn’t all that normal at this point anyway. In fact, the abnormality of lobster prices, now at historic lows, coupled with increasing operating costs, may be behind the volatile tempers. Port Clyde lobsterman Jerry Cushman explained it to me: “Right now,” he said, “it’s as low as it’s been in, oh God. . . I’m getting $2.40 a pound, boat price. Last week I got $2.50. And last year at this time, I got $3.50. So go figure.” Such abysmal numbers don’t translate into low prices at the retail level. “So who’s making the money?” Cushman demanded. I had a feeling he knew but he wasn’t willing to say.

Part of the problem is the casual way Maine lobster is marketed. Despite the cachet of the label, a lot of what’s sold as “Maine lobster” in the rest of the country may not come from Maine at all. “Well, face it,” said Ryan Post, a young, fourth-generation lobsterman, “you never hear of Massachusetts lobster, do you? Or Long Island lobster?” Further, he said, because Maine lacks processing facilities, an astonishing 75 percent to 80 percent of Maine-harvested lobster is shipped to Canada for processing then re-exported, to Maine and elsewhere, as “Product of Canada.” This understandably gripes Maine lobstermen (and women—though the profession is dominated by males, and until recently women were considered an unlucky presence on a lobster boat).

“A dollar a pound makes a difference,” Post said. “It’s what pays for fuel and bait.” It costs him $400 a day, he said, “before I leave the dock. It takes 200 pounds of shedders to pay that. And then you’ve got license fees, insurance, maybe a boat mortgage, a house mortgage, and you’ve got to pay your stern man.” (Shedders are soft-shell lobsters, harvested in summer months, while a stern man is the vital right-hand assistant on the boat.)

One person trying to make a difference is Linda Bean, granddaughter of legendary merchant L. L. Bean, whose name is as synonymous with Maine as lobster itself. Under the brand “Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine,” she is cutting out the Canadian connection, buying up lobster wharves–where boats land their catch–and pounds–where live lobsters are held until the market is ready–and rapidly introducing a chain of lobster outlets featuring lobster rolls and lobster stew. Branding the product in a way that guarantees quality, she believes, will create a secure and consistent market to provide lobstermen, and her company as well, with a reliably steady income.  “Fishermen are the endangered species, not the lobster,” she says.

Bean is leading an effort to gain Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification for Maine lobster, pointing out the sustainable nature of the harvest. The MSC is an international organization that certifies sustainable fisheries to promote environmentally friendly choices. Maine laws, reinforced by the fishermen themselves, are famously stringent, with both upper and lower size limits and an outright ban on the harvest of egg-bearing females. As a result, Post said, “There’s a lot of lobster out there.”

“Sustainable” and “traceable” are words with marketing impact. Younger fishermen like Post understand that and so does Bean. But as long as lobster prices stay as low as they are, and as long as these guys keep shooting each other, it may not make a difference.

For a recipe that takes advantage of this season’s record low prices, see Zester Daily’s: Lobster and Corn Chowder.

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Peter Ralston

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