Backstory: Dangerous waters

Among lobstermen on Maine's Matinicus Island, a Wild-West mentality prevails.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

On a Sunday morning last month, the lobster boat captains on this distant island gathered in the church basement for their annual meeting. A pressing item of business was how to deal with a 73-year-old lobsterman who'd left the island a decade ago but was still setting traps in its waters, some of the most crustacean-rich in the world.

In the musty basement, one floor below the pews, two dozen lobstermen, large men mostly, talked about how Victor Ames had ignored warnings to keep out, and how he'd allegedly made violent threats against other lobstermen, including his own relatives. It no longer mattered that Ameses had lived here for two centuries, and still made up a good number of the 50 year-round residents. In their minds, Mr. Ames had broken faith with Matinicus.

The wide band of water between Matinicus and the mainland was no longer a moat, shielding the fiercely independent island against the predations of outsiders. Nowadays, there was a need for other forms of self-defense.

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Before the meeting was over, according to witness statements in court records, Ames's own son-in-law urged the other lobstermen to take an extraordinary precaution before their next trip to sea: bring guns.

At least one person at the meeting heeded the advice. A thickset man with freckles and a graying red beard, Joseph Bray knew firsthand how easy it was to get on the wrong side of island lobstermen, a gruff lot who didn't necessarily mind their mainland reputation as modern-day Blackbeards.

Two days later, Mr. Bray boarded his boat, the Si Ling – Chinese for phoenix – with a Remington 870 pump-action shotgun.

***

Matinicus, the most seaward of Maine's inhabited islands, is cut off from the mainland town of Rockland, and the nearest police station, by 20 miles of water.

Frontier justice has reigned on this speck of granite – two miles long, one mile wide – since its first white settler, Ebenezer Hall, arrived in 1750 and tangled with the Indians. The native Penobscots warned the colonial governor that if Hall wasn't removed, they'd take matters into their own hands, according to a local history book. A plaque under weeds near the post office commemorates the episode's end: "Ebenezer Hall. The First White Settler on Matinicus Isle, Maine. Killed by the Indians. June 6, 1757."

Since then, the island has done little to live down its notoriety. "There's been a reputation, cultivated lovingly, that we're all cutthroats, pirates, inbreds, and totally wild out here," says Eva Murray, the town clerk, treasurer, solid-waste coordinator, school bookkeeper, emergency medical technician, and one of the few year-round residents not in the lobster business.

When Knox County Sheriff Daniel Davey told The Working Waterfront newspaper in 2001 that there was a group of Matinicans "that definitely does not want the presence of law enforcement," one lobsterman wrote to the editor that some didn't much like Mr. Davey either: "Sheriff Davey was unable to win an election out here in which he was unopposed; out of 24 votes cast, one was for an island resident and 12 were for 'anyone else.' "

***

A touch of Wild West anarchism has always been a part of lobstering. Despite advances in technology and conservation, the profession is much as it was centuries ago: One or two men in small boats vying in open water for a finite resource, far from the eyes of the law.

In Maine, a decade-long boom in lobster harvests belies the cliché of the rugged lobsterman eking out a bare-bones existence. Last year Maine fishermen landed 65 million pounds of lobster, worth a record $301 million. The coveted crustaceans were shipped live to places as far flung as Japan, Liberia, and Ukraine. Skilled lobstermen – so-called "highliners" – can earn in the low six figures.

On paper, anyone with a Maine lobster license can set traps almost anywhere. But on Matinicus, perhaps more than in other fishing communities, lobstermen patrol their turf with a roguish ferocity.

Matinicus lobstermen who notice strange traps in their waters will tie half hitches around the tails of trap buoys, so they float at an odd angle. If the intruder doesn't take the hint, lobstermen will snip lines, making traps nearly impossible to recover.

"You try not to go out and start a war," explains Clayton Philbrook, a lobster-boat captain with meaty hands and a walrus mustache, whose island roots go back about two centuries. "But they have to know you're serious."

The state's marine police rarely have the evidence to intervene in the so-called "trap wars" that periodically grip the Maine coast. "The facts are that [lobstermen] are widely separated, the traps are usually a long ways from shore, and your actions can be hidden anytime by 300 yards of distance or fog or night," says James Acheson, a maritime anthropologist at the University of Maine and author of "The Lobster Gangs of Maine."

On Matinicus, the nonnatives learn quickly that only one subject can make a man pull a knife or reach for a gun.

"As long as you don't interfere with lobstering or look like you're interfering with lobstering, they leave you alone," says Bill Hoadley, who runs the island's only inn.

***

Victor Ames, a barrel-chested man with silver hair and steely blue eyes, hails from a rough-and-tumble island dynasty. The Ameses' fierce streak made them enormously successful lobstermen, if not always the most popular. One lobster boat here, belonging to an Ames, still flies red sails and the Jolly Roger.

Mr. Ames learned the trade as a boy, hauling traps by hand off the side of his father's peapod-shaped skiff. After a few years on the nearby island of Vinalhaven, where he married a local girl, he returned to Matinicus in 1965 to fish some of the thickest densities of lobster anywhere in the world. He made enough money to launch other businesses: selling boat fuel from a barge, buying lobsters from island fishermen, and briefly running a restaurant in Florida.

But many islanders came to see him as a provocateur, a wily operator who took relish in pitting lobstermen against one another for his own ends.

Found earlier this month in the seafood restaurant he recently purchased in the mainland town of Thomaston, where he now lives, Ames said, "I raise hell with everybody." These days, though, he says, he is mostly just an old fisherman with a bad hip and a weak heart, a victim of vigilantism by people he'd once considered his friends. "I haven't threatened one soul," he said. "It's just jealousy and greed."

***

Joseph Bray knew what it was like to be a target of Matinicus lobstermen. When he moved to the island two decades ago, no one let him forget that he was an outsider. "I had traps cut, boats burned, boats cut off, outboards sunk," he recalls.

In 1995, sheriff's deputies whisked to the island on a Coast Guard vessel found Bray and a half-dozen men brawling on a beach, a few dueling with boat oars. Local newspaper accounts said that Bray slammed an ax into the windshield of a car belonging to one David A. Ames, who responded with a similar whack to Bray's windshield.

Islanders told The Bangor Daily News that year that Bray had justifiably lashed out after years of harassment. "Joe's only crime is that he wasn't born" here, one man said.

But a lot would change in a decade. Last month, after a showdown at sea, it was an Ames who would be branded an intruder, and Bray, a red-blooded islander.

Continued Tuesday.

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