You know, I was actually hesitating to write a post about this whole Matinicus shoot up trial because I didn't want to manufacture any negative stereotypes about the way lobstermen do their biz. And since I've never set foot on Matinicus or know any of the parties involved, I'm hardly qualified to play armchair psychologist But when you come across a local columnist who says things like this--
Matinicus Island has long had a reputation as a wild and lawless place. Nineteen years ago the Knox County Sheriff, wanting to bring some law to the island, sent a deputy. The islanders overturned his truck on his lawn and - there is no other way to put it - drove him off the island. No deputy has dared live there since. Read more of this column here.
--Well, how can I NOT post something about it? Trap Wars fascinate everyone. it's a major part of The Ghost Trap's plot, but I just wouldn't have the ovaries to write it the way Joe did in his column. Sure, it's his experience, and you can't argue with someone that his perception of an incident or a group of people is wrong. It's his perception; it's the way he sees it. But, is it reality? I'm worried about this fascination with trap wars is turning into a blanket appraisal of how ALL lobstermen handle conflict in Maine. It's not all shotguns and boat sinkings. This isn't The Sopranos in Grundens. You can't call an entire island lawless.
My touring partner, Ryan Post couldn't be more irritated by the media attention on this--
Ryan Post of Rockland, a lobsterman who fishes out of Metinic Island about 12 miles west of Matinicus, said he knows the fishermen around Matinicus and he hopes the incident doesn’t cause the rest of the country to think poorly of midcoast fishermen.
“We have a bit of black eye because of this case, and it’s getting out all around the United States that we are a bunch of pirates running around the sea,” Post said. “That’s not who we are.”
It's the culture of this island that keeps people riveted. Many island lobstering communities don't have police out there the way the mainland does. They've self-policed for centuries--and they have their own very distinctive rules and norms. James Acheson, author of The Lobster Gangs of Maine, was the first person to articulate what had always been understood cultural behavior around defense of boundaries. According to Acheson,
"An older person from an established family with a long history of fishing might infringe on the territorial rights of others almost indefinitely.. . An unpopular person,a young fishermen, or a newcomer encounters trouble more quickly. Sooner, or later, however, someone decides to take action around the interloper. sometimes a small group of fishermen decide to act in concert, but boundary defense is often effected by one person acting alone."
The point is these are clans-- these lobster "gangs." They are tight-knit communities whose resources and ability to generate income are limited--that's the reality. The rules state you have to own land on the island and be part of established families to lobster fish. Even sternmen get grilled. "Who are you, who did you apprentice under?" If you are considered a newcomer or an outsider, an established chain of events will happen. First there will be verbal warnings, next there might be visual warnings ( two half hitches around the offending buoy). Don't get the message yet? There will be surreptitious molestation of gear. As we have seen from the events of last summer, it can escalate--and nobody wins in the end. What needs to happen is that if these self-policed communities want to retain their freedoms to remain self-policed, there needs to be self-regulation in times of escalated conflict as well. If that means holding closed-door meetings or inquiries, or even trials, then that's what they need to do so somebody doesn't get killed over it. .
But face it. The handshakes and the nicey-nice behavior don't make the news. Two lobstermen who overcome their misunderstandings, who talk it out and effectively manage their own conflict don't sell. But God, can we afford the hype?
By Ryan Post
Our family has designated April 15 every year as the day we all go to the island and set our traps, 100 at a time. And this isn’t any random, “toss ‘em wherever” method—if anything it’s like the way my aunt orchestrates Christmas—everything is hyper-organized, from how good a shape the traps themselves are in (none can be what we call“stove up”) to the exact length of rope tied to each trap. And the area where each trap will be dropped is already pre-arranged before we even get on the boats. Yep, it’s a little OCD. But it has to be, because if you drop a brand new $65 trap into shallow water in the spring, what’s going to happen is, it is going to continuously get rolled over by the tide. And in a matter of weeks that $65 trap turns into a $5 trap.
Every year, I put out 800 traps, which is the Maine state limit and I’ll steam out 35-45 minutes a day to my designated fishing area and haul about 300 traps per day. Spring is a notoriously tough time to catch anything. It’s a little bit like planting a row of seeds. You don’t go out the next day and expect waist-high flowers. We’re the farmers of the sea and when you work with lobsters you’ve got to know their quirks. They’re real picky and you can’t blame them. They know how to work those traps better then we do. First of all, they burrow down into deep waters in the spring. They don’t like the cold; they don’t like any fresh water runoff coming from the shoreline and they don’t like old salted bait that time of year. You’ve got to coax them with fresh herring or alewives. Beyond that, they won’t start migrating inland to shallower waters until the temperature of the ocean gets up to about 43 degrees or higher.
Still, it’s the chase that makes me go to work even if I’m not making a dime. Last spring I put a couple of 13-hour days in, and went $300 in the hole. Got up the next morning at 3 am—and did it all again. But that’s okay. It’s a great thing we don’t catch all the lobsters that go in our traps—or else there would be none left. That’s the way we do it in Maine. We are the original conservationists when it comes to lobster and we treat it as it should be--a sustainable resource.
And if you want to call me an environmentalist….go ahead!
Columns about the sub-culture of lobstering that K. Stephens has collaborated on with Maine lobstermen and guest bloggers.