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Surf and Turf: Territorial Dispute in Maine’s Lobster Industry

On July 9, 2009, Chris Young was shot in the neck with a .22 caliber pistol. Surprisingly, in a nation plagued by urban violence, this story comes from rural Matinicus, Maine, a small island home to all-too-frequent lobster gang turf wars. Young, a victim of such a dispute, was shot by Vance Bunker in the culmination of a weeks-long dispute over whether Bunker’s son-in-law, Alan Miller, could lobster off the coast of Matinicus Island, despite being a mainlander. For several days following the shooting, the waters surrounding Matinicus were closed to lobstering in an attempt to relieve tensions and prevent further retaliation, but the shock of the violence still resonates today.


The shooting made national headlines and turned the perception of Maine as a picturesque, natural haven on its head. From its quaint harbor towns to its charming and quiet inhabitants, Maine encapsulates a peaceful life in a way that drives millions of tourists to visit each year. Little is more representative of the state than the lobstermen who, for the most part, still carry on the tradition as it’s been practiced since the early 1800s. However, territorial behavior and violence are an important but less public part of this tradition; lobstering has relied on these practices to ensure the preservation of the industry.


When examined further, incidents of territorial violence date back as far as the modern practice of lobstering itself.  In a 2009 article for The Atlantic, Trevor Colson wrote of his time in the mid-90s as a crew member aboard a lobster boat: “Fights [over territory] would start with the molestation of an intruder’s equipment, and often escalated to shouting matches, severed trap lines, shattered house windows, and even the occasional arm or leg broken by a baseball bat.” In 1993, Portland Harbor was placed under an emergency 90-day curfew to ease tensions that arose from rampant trap-cutting, death threats, and vandalism. More recently, a trap war along the coast from Deer Isle to Mount Desert Island involving 15 lobstermen caused approximately $350,000 in lost and damaged equipment. It is unlikely, however, that people with legitimate information will come forward – it is widely accepted that to come forward only draws further retribution and thus greater economic loss.

In many Maine towns, lobstering is one of the only viable industries. For lobstermen, preventing overfishing in their territory is important to long-term returns and a larger income. As one lobsterman put it, “when the survival of you and your family is intrinsically tied to the natural world, sustainability [is]…a lifeline you grasp with both hands.” In most fishing industries, the ocean is a common good, leading fishermen to focus solely on getting the biggest catch they can out of limited fish populations. So, while non-territorialized fishing industries battle overfishing brought about by the tragedy of the commons, the open ocean incentivizes lobstermen to invest in the sustainability of their territory. Thus, while the desire for sustainability by no means justifies the violent actions that follow, it is the fiercely territorial nature of lobstermen that effectively prevents the commercial extinction of the Maine lobster. Maintaining this territorialism is a necessary component in ensuring the preservation of the lobster industry.


In recent history, dependency on the lobster industry has left some feeling pinched. Globalization, worldwide economic fluctuation, and a growth of labor supply have exacerbated the preexisting traditions of violence and conflict in lobstering towns along the coast of Maine. Economic downturns led more people to enter the industry, driving the ‘dock price’ for lobster down across all markets. At one point, the per-pound price received by lobstermen dropped from $6.50 to a meager $2.60, but prices have since rebounded to around $4.00. Such price drops, combined with increasing equipment costs and gas prices, encourage greater territorial behavior from lobstermen, leading to more aggressive responses towards potential intruders.

The days of market self-regulation, however, are gone. In response to both environmental concerns and turf wars, the state of Maine has established a skeleton structure of legislation to regulate lobstering territory by setting boundaries and market entry caps. The new regulations divide the coastline into seven zones, and lobstermen are licensed to operate only in their particular zone. Stringent requirements regulate and require identification of any traps that are placed outside the authorized areas. Combined with standards for apprenticeships and licensing, the statutes serve to control the growth of the industry.


Alongside these laws, lobstermen have developed informal rules to further control the territory. Newcomers are especially targeted by these regulations, and there are further unofficial, familial subdivisions of the coast that are in many cases observed just as stringently as the established zones. The previously mentioned shooting involved violation of one of these customs: Mainland lobstermen cannot trap in island waters, even if such activity is otherwise lawful.


Together, these rules and traditions have created the current competitive atmosphere in the Maine lobstering community. Despite legislation aimed at curbing turf wars through mandatory suspensions, revocations, and trap limits, the widespread and destructive trap conflicts still exist in many Maine communities. Current regulations must be reformed if there is any hope of deescalating this lobstering violence.


The current defensive system is not without its benefits. Lobstermen protecting their waters and catch coupled with the regulation of trap numbers ensures that lobster will not be as dangerously overfished as other seafood. Familial territory claims also keep youth in Maine – one of the oldest states in the nation – by ensuring that children can take over the family trade without having to undergo the hardships of industry newcomers. If lobstering progresses the same way other Maine industries have, more young people will leave the state in search of higher wages and better job security, and there will soon be a dearth of people to fill jobs left behind by the aging lobstering force – potentially crippling the market responsible for approximately 80 percent of the nation’s lobster production.

However, there are also obvious concerns with the current system as well. This system encourages violence by not taking a clear stance on the property rights of these lobstering zones. Lobstermen with traditional zones consider their territory to be private property, while those without (newcomers especially), consider the zones to belong to the collective of those licensed in such areas. As a result of this ambiguity, individuals consider the contested waters to be their own and are incentivized to protect their catch, naturally leading to further conflict between lobstermen. The system also provides no safety net to protect laborers in an industry critical to the state’s economy. There is nothing in place to protect the wages of lobstermen should dock prices fall catastrophically due to economic recession or other factors. As was seen during the collapse of the northern Maine paper industry, the state and its residents are not equipped to handle the loss of a major industry, and just as many people were hurt when the mills left Millinocket, the loss of the lobster industry could cripple entire towns and impoverish thousands throughout the state.


At this point, reform of the current system is absolutely necessary. It is unlikely that imposing further penalties for negative behavior will produce long-term change, given the unwillingness of lobstermen to report their colleagues. Instead, the legislature should institutionalize the official partition of lobstering territories and better define the boundaries through apportionment that takes cultural and familial ties into account. By keeping the same number of permits and assigning each lobsterman an official trapping zone that incorporates traditional boundaries, legislation could both maintain the beneficial conservation practices of lobstermen and provide a more clear-cut system of accountability for territorial invasion. In such a system, trapping out of one’s zone could be more easily determined and penalized, without a need to go to extralegal lengths to seek retribution. This system would also ease tensions and alleviate direct competition among lobstermen in the same portion of ocean. In any such reform, there should also be a safety net fund to ensure that, in the case of plummeting lobster prices, the market doesn’t shut down, lobstermen don’t go broke, and the state’s economy can remain relatively stable. Ultimately, though, the greatest threat to the Maine lobster economy is the economically unsustainable pattern of vandalism and trap warring. Without clearer and more relevant demarcation of territories at both the local and state level, this cycle of violence could continue, depriving many lobstermen of a sustainable income and the rest of the nation of a sustainable shellfish dinner.