Lobstermen Caught Up In Violent Fishing Disputes For lobstermen in Maine, squabbles over territory are nothing new. Scores often are settled at sea, sometimes violently. But a recent shooting on land, followed by the sinking of two lobster boats, suggests that long-standing tensions are escalating.
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Lobstermen Caught Up In Violent Fishing Disputes

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Lobstermen Caught Up In Violent Fishing Disputes

Lobstermen Caught Up In Violent Fishing Disputes

Lobstermen Caught Up In Violent Fishing Disputes

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For lobstermen in Maine, squabbles over territory are nothing new. Scores often are settled at sea, sometimes violently. But a recent shooting on land, followed by the sinking of two lobster boats, suggests that long-standing tensions are escalating.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

For lobster fishermen in Maine, squabbles over territory are nothing new. Personal disputes can drag on for years. Lately, small-scale vandalism - like cutting a fellow lobsterman's traplines - has given way to more serious violence. In one community, a lobsterman was shot in the neck and two boats were sunk in the harbor.

Keith Shortall of Maine Public Broadcasting reports.

KEITH SHORTALL: It's a warm, still summer morning in midcoast Maine, and friends and family of lobsterman Donald McMahon muster on the wharf here in the small fishing community Owls Head, armed with cleaning supplies.

(Soundbite of people talking)

Unidentified Man: It's all about the rags, Ross, paper towels and so on.

SHORTALL: They've been helping to refloat and clean McMahon's boat, the Get Her Done, one of three vessels vandalized overnight and one of two that sank in the shallow harbor.

Mr. JIB McMAHON (Lobsterman, Maine): It's been (beep) too bad.

SHORTALL: McMahon, known around here as Jib, says it's no coincidence that the boats belong to members of his family. It's a dispute with other lobstermen that he says goes back four years. He only returned to fishing recently after recovering from a series of strokes over the past several years, a fact he says the vandals fully understood.

Mr. McMAHON: I knew something would happen. Those guys only pick on kids and crippled.

SHORTALL: McMahon strongly denies involvement in the cutting of any traplines, a common tactic in what's known as a trap war, and a common complaint being fielded by the Maine Marine Patrol.

Major JOHN FETTERMAN (Maine Marine Patrol): I can not remember in 32 years that fishing disputes, boundaries, territorial disputes and even personal family disputes have escalated to this level of violence.

SHORTALL: Major John Fetterman acknowledges that it's been a tough year for the industry. Lobster prices are low, and the cost of doing business is up.

Maj. FETTERMAN: You're going to ask me what triggered this. What trigger mechanism set off this recent eruption of violent activity in peaceful midcoast Maine? I don't have a good answer for you.

SHORTALL: The Owls Head boat sinkings come just weeks after a shooting on the fishing island of Matinicus, which wounded a local lobsterman and left another facing criminal charges. State authorities closed the local fishery for several days to cool tensions.

Traditionally, lobstering communities like Matinicus - which is 20 miles offshore - have handled fishing disputes internally and quietly shunned the interference of law enforcement.

Mr. CLAYTON PHILBRICK (Lobsterman): It makes controlling our bottom a little easier.

SHORTALL: By controlling our bottom, Matinicus lobsterman Clayton Philbrick means protecting the local fishing territories from interlopers and outsiders. But Philbrick says self-policing is often a necessity, as state and local law enforcement are slow to respond to complaints.

Mr. PHILBRICK: We've got one man who hasn't hauled a trap since the 4th of July, his boat's been vandalized two or three times. Nothings been done. They've got an investigation underway. Well, so does the guy that owns the boat.

SHORTALL: The Maine Marine Patrol admits to being stretched thin, with only about 40 field officers to cover 3,500 miles of coastline.

Back at Owls Head, diver and lobsterman Todd Nichols is scratching his head over the sinking of Jib McMahon's boat.

Mr. TODD NICHOLS (Diver, Lobsterman): Jib is a good guy. He don't deserve none of this. He's put all he had into this business, trying to make a living. So, everybody's just trying to make a buck.

SHORTALL: But with many lobstering families struggling to pay bills and keep their homes, tensions have moved from the open water to the shore, marking what some old-timers say is a sad chapter in a proud tradition that goes back generations.

For NPR News, I'm Keith Shortall in Portland, Maine.

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