Backstory: Tough island law

Steaming recently into the waters off this remote island, Victor Ames was beside himself. A few weeks earlier, his sternman had set 400 lobster traps on the ocean bottom, marking their location with Day-Glo-yellow-and-orange buoys. Now, all but a handful of the buoys were gone. Thousands of dollars worth of the wire traps had been snipped from their lines.

Ames, 73, had been in the business long enough to know the message island lobstermen were sending: Keep out. Yet he was no outsider. He'd grown up on Matinicus in a family with two centuries of history here. Ameses still made up a plurality of the 50 year-round residents, including some of its most powerful lobsterboat captains. It was hard to believe that so many traps could go missing without their consent.

Shaken, Ames allegedly called his island kin and told them to watch their backs.

***

Matinicus is the farthest-flung Maine island with a year-round population. There are no antique shops, no saltwater-taffy stands, no restaurants. Groceries are flown in, and the state ferry comes no more than four times a month. The one-room schoolhouse had no students in one recent year.

The granite island is crossed by a few dirt roads, and cloaked in spruce and the scent of salt and wildflowers. Daytrippers are mostly ignored. Tongue-in-cheek "Advice to Tourists" on the church refrigerator warns: "Just because you happen to be on vacation, we, at this moment, are not."

Outlaw justice here is equal parts tradition and necessity. Cut off by 20 miles of water from the mainland town of Rockland and the nearest police station, islanders don't make a habit of calling the cops. "By the time law enforcement gets here, they've settled their own business, and usually, it's knock-down, drag-out," says Donna Rogers, a local historian married to a lobsterman. She still remembers the time in the 1950s when her step-father fired a warning shot across the wharf as four Ameses approached menacingly.

***

Most fishermen who sell their houses and leave Matinicus, as Victor Ames did 12 years ago, are barred from fishing its waters. An exception was made for Ames because of his deep island roots. But this year, he wore out his welcome. He hired a non-islander to tend traps, saying he was too ill to work his boat himself – though he was still apparently well enough to buy and run a restaurant on the mainland. Then, after losing traps, he griped to a Rockland newspaper in May that he was a victim of "vigilante justice."

Now he was frightening his own family, allegedly threatening to plow into boats, set the island on fire, and shoot anyone who stood in his way, according to witness accounts in files at state Superior and District courts in Rockland.

Clayton Philbrook, a lobsterman and former island assessor, says he doesn't know who cut Ames's traps, but that the losses were "appropriate" because Ames "knew the rules since he was in three-cornered pants."

At a meeting of lobstermen in the church basement on June 11, Ames's son-in-law, Tad Miller, urged his colleagues to board their boats with guns, according to court papers.

Joseph Bray , a brawny lobsterman with a grizzled red beard and freckles, took Mr. Miller at his word. If anyone knew how fast an island spat could turn violent, it was Bray. When he moved here from a neighboring island two decades ago, his traps were cut, his boats burned, his motors sunk.

But Bray had paid his dues, and Matinicus's lobstering grounds had paid him back. He remodeled a handsome Victorian house on the island and took vacations in Hawaii, St. Lucia, and Costa Rica. His backyard pig roast has become one of the most anticipated get-togethers in the summer. He named his boat Si Ling, Chinese for phoenix, the mythical creature that rises from the ashes of its own destruction.

Soon after the meeting, Bray stashed a shotgun on a shelf near the bow of his boat.

***

June 13 dawned like most mornings here, with lobstermen rumbling down to the wharf on ATVs and in rusting pickups.

It was still early when Bray and his sternman saw Ames's boat, the Hey Baby, slicing through the water to the east. It was an unnerving sight, not just because of the warning at the island meeting. Ames's 36-foot boat was powered by a 610-horsepower engine twice as fast the average lobster boat. Bray radioed a warning to other lobstermen.

For the next hour there was no sign of Ames. Then, suddenly, the Hey Baby appeared at the stern of the Si Ling, closing in at 40 knots, Bray told police. When it finally veered away, crossing Bray's wake at 50 feet, Bray and his sternman said Ames drew a finger across his throat.

Alarmed, Bray asked his sternman to hand him the shotgun. Then, Bray told police, he fired twice at the Hey Baby. The shots came so close that Ames said he could hear them whistle by. Two lobstermen not involved in the fracas told police they heard Bray on the VHF radio afterward: Next time, he said, he wouldn't miss.

After the showdown, Ames was arrested on misdemeanor charges of operating a watercraft to endanger, terrorizing, and refusing to sign a court summons. Bray was charged with felony reckless conduct. It was an ugly episode that would make most island communities – those that cared about bad publicity, anyway – cringe. But as far as Matinicans were concerned, the island had taken a stand.

***

At his restaurant the other day, Ames said he was a victim of "paranoid" and "overhoggish" lobstermen. He said he'd threatened no one and got no closer than 150 feet from Bray on his return from a search for missing traps.

Ames, a barrel-chested man with silver hair, groused that a new set of "Matinicus Fishermen's Rules" seemed to be aimed squarely at him. One says that fishermen must own a house with electric service and pay taxes on the island in order to lobster in its waters. Another says that sick lobstermen can't hire nonislanders to tend their traps. "It's like a little Russia," Ames said.

***

For generations, the idea of formal cooperation among Matinicus lobstermen – who rarely agreed about anything – would've been laughable. But in recent years, some had come to fear for the island's very survival. Four years ago, they began annual meetings – making group decisions and writing down the unofficial rules that have governed fishing here for decades. Unless fishermen were required to own houses here, they decided, there was little they could do to sustain a year-round community.

"I'd like to think my grandson could ... make a living here," Mr. Philbrook says.

But that dream is not as assured as it once was. Faster boats and regular air service have chipped away at the island's hallmark isolation.

Year-round population, which peaked at 276 in 1870 is projected to drop to 16 by 2020. Many lobstermen now buy second houses on the mainland so wives can pursue careers and children can have more friends and play sports. Summer residents now include doctors, lawyers, and professors. One waterfront house here is for sale for $1.3 million, a harbinger of economic pressures that may one day price lobstermen off the island.

"We no longer have an ocean between us," says Ms. Rogers.

On his lawyer's advice, Bray wouldn't discuss the criminal case. But he says the rules against nonresidents are for self-preservation. "If and when you lose your post office, your church, your school, what do you have for a community?" he said the other day, leaning back on a chair on his porch. "You have a dusty road – that's it."

How a court views Bray's shotgun blasts remains to be seen, but in this place long mythologized as a pirates' island, no one is losing much sleep. "If nothing else, it adds to the mystique," Philbrook says. "We don't like to see our name in the paper, but ... it might help." Outsiders may "think twice before they cross the line."

Part 1 of this story appeared Monday.

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