The island of Matinicus is referred to as a “pirate island” for “its reputation for eccentricity, independence, and frontier justice, is the most seaward of Maine’s inhabited islands. About 20 wild miles out to sea, and out of sight of the mainland, it’s 2 miles long and a mile wide” (Levitt). It has held this reputation since its beginning, when Penobscot Indians first came to harvest seabird eggs and were upset by Ebenezer Hall, the islands first white settler in 1757. Hall came with his family for farming and fishing in 1750 but lit the first flame of frontier justice when he burned too much land on Matinicus and a neighboring island for more pasture and arable land. This irritated the Indians enough to capture his family and scalp him. Just as property was coveted then, it is coveted now, but at the ocean bottom.
With only thirty-three moorings accessible to fishermen, and only so much ocean bottom to go around, the lobster inhabiting said territory, is fiercely defended. The fishing grounds around Matinicus are some of the most plentiful in the world, with this reputation comes many lobstermen eager for success. However, entering the lobstering community on Matinicus can be very challenging depending on your credentials. The coast of Maine and its islands are riddled with gangs specific to each resource and harbor. Each control their own territory, fish without permission in them, and the violator will be an example of the “touch of Wild West anarchism has always been a part of lobstering” (Sabar).
“Anyone seeking to go lobstering experiences a certain degree of hostility…New fisherman usually have some traps molested for the first few months…this almost amounts to an initiation…On permanently occupied islands, ownership of land by itself is not enough to guarantee fishing rights. A number of people have bought cottages on…Matinicus…but are not allowed to go fishing” (Acheson 64-68). In order to successfully gain the rights to fish on Matinicus, one must possess the correct credentials. Such credentials include, an established family history, a personality that fits in with the gang members, allies within the gang, land on the island, and to have started at a young age. The most crucial of these are land ownership and gang allies, even with these things though, one might never be admitted into a gang. The easiest way to become a member is to begin fishing with a family member in good standing within a gang, learning the ropes at a young age, and eventually continue on one’s own as a member of the gang.
“Once accepted in a gang, members are almost never ejected” (Acheson 68). Even if a lobsterman has a reputation of trap meddling or lobster stealing, no big effort to put him out of business will be made because of the possibility of costly retaliation and, if he holds family history and land on the island this justifies his right to fish. However, when a fisherman’s faith to the island is broken, like Victor Ames, a 73-year-old whose family has lived on Matinicus for two centuries but he himself has lived on the mainland for 10 years now. Victor has a fierce reputation and is said, even by his own son-in-law to use extreme caution around: “bring guns” (Sabar). Victor had begun his lobstering career hauling up traps with his father on Vinalhaven, he then returned to Matinicus after marrying a local girl and made enough to participate in other industries. Ames now resides on the mainland and is viewed by Matinicus lobsterman as “a provocateur, a wily operator who took relish in pitting lobstermen against one another for his own ends” (Sabar). Ames characterizes himself as “an old fisherman with a bad hip and a weak heart, a victim of vigilantism by people he’d once considered his friends” (Sabar). Situations like these are not uncommon among island communities. Many lobstermen filled with either greed or jealousy will target people such as Ames for no real reason.
Territorial greed can manifest in more violent ways than just trap cutting, boat burning, and outboards sinking (Sabar). For instance, the shooting over a trap cutting in 2009, when Edwin “Bunker pulled up to the wharf in a pickup truck and confronted Young and Weston Ames, Young’s sternman—and when Janan Miller stepped out from behind a stack of lobster traps and leveled a 12-gauge shotgun at Young and Ames, according to investigators’ reports. When Ames tried to push the shotgun barrel away, Bunker pulled a pistol from his holster and fired at him, police said. He missed. Bunker turned, took aim at Young and fired again, investigators said. The bullet struck Young in the neck and he fell to the ground” (Canfield). Though violence is a last resort, as lobsterman do not like involving the authorities in their own personal matters, events such as these do occur as a result of frontier justice attitudes.
Acheson,J.. (1988). The Lobster Gangs of Maine. Hanover and London: University Press of New England.
Ariel SabarContributor to The Christian Science Monitor. (2006, ). Backstory: Dangerous waters ; among lobstermen on maine’s matinicus island, a wild-west mentality prevails: ALL edition. The Christian Science Monitor
Canfield, C. (2019, December 9). Breitbart News Network. Retrieved from https://www.breitbart.com/.
Levitt, J. (2008, ). Roaming in ghostly, seaward maine. Boston Globe
Matinicus lobsterman remains barred from island. (2009, ). Bangor Daily News (Bangor, ME)
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