I live a relatively land-locked life near the Eastern US coast. The closest my family and I get to sailing is a swan-shaped paddle boat on a lake. That was until a recent trip to New England where I discovered the thrill of the open ocean and the stories it can tell…
Therefore, on this edition of Traveling with the Travelers summer blog series (named for my book The Travelers), I’ll explore some stories of the sea.
Ocean as a Literary Star
Although my experience with the ocean is limited, I’ve read stories about men and women who try to tame the seas, such as Moby Dick, The Old Man and the Sea, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the Odyssey, Life of Pi, Treasure Island. And I’ve seen the movies like Jaws and The Perfect Storm.
In many of these stories, the sea itself can be a character, sometimes “turning the tide” of a story with its fickle nature. The ocean is a pervasive influence and player in fiction. But as I learned on our recent trip up in New England, the real life stories of the sea creatures and those men and women who try to tame them can be stranger than fiction.
Expanding My Ocean Horizon
During our visit to Maine I doubled the amount of times I’d been out past the shore on a real boat when we took a tour on a lobster boat in Bar Harbor and sail boat tour in Camden.
Out on the cool water under a hot sun that made the ocean sparkle like it had millions of tiny crystals caught in its waves, I found out what all that literature and film fuss is all about. The salty air that fills your lungs and moves through your body changes the way you see the world.
At every seaside stop, we’d stare out beyond the shore and see triangular white sails drift like tiny toys in the water. Sails cropped up on t-shirts, store fronts, menus wherever we went.
But boats weren’t the only marine symbol in New England. Even at our first stop of Salem, Massachusetts, amidst the witchy wears, restaurants touted having delicious lobster dinners. However, once we crawled up the coast of Maine, lobster was the “main” attraction.
After my first lobster salad in New England, I came to realize the old adage that lobster is better in Maine is completely true. Until then, I’d never understood the way people’s mouths fell open, watering, with the mere mention of lobster. Now, I’m going to be that person drooling at the thought the lobster rolls in Maine.
Voyage Into Lobster Territory
Given my entire family fell under the lobster spell, we thought it might be interesting to go out on a lobster fishing boat. My daughter was a bit reluctant. We enticed her with the promise of seeing whiskered seal noses popping out of the water and relaxing on rocky shores.
After chugging past rocky cliffs and tree cloaked islands, we reached deeper waters. The boat captain pulled traps while the naturist (aka, tour guide who knew a lot about lobsters) gave us an extensive education.
Lobster’s Rigid Rules
While I’m pretty sure my daughter tried not to do anything but look for seals (we did see quite a few lazing on the rocks), what I found most interesting about this tour was the description of the lobster fishing rules.
Each fisherman has a color scheme, like a coat of arms, that marks his or her traps. In the water little multi-colored buoys cover the waves far into the horizon. As the naturist explained, the lobster fishing industry laws are strictly enforced and strictly followed. What the guide didn’t tell us, but we found out on a later tour on a much different boat, was that it’s not always so congenial among the lobster fishing community. That was the story I wanted to hear…
A History of Lobster Violence
Once upon a time, there existed something called the Lobster Wars. A mafia or Hatfield and McCoy style battle for territory that had rumors of violent threats, sinking boats and even gun violence. I must admit I was intrigued to learn of this sordid history and had to investigate.
Taking to the internet, I soon discovered the Lobster Wars aren’t just history. This vigilante justice, wild-west style retaliation for encroachment on territories still occurs today.
“To protect their fishing grounds, the lobstermen here have been known to cut trap lines, circle their boats menacingly around unwelcome vessels and fire warning blasts from shotguns.”
As recently as April 2017, the lobster turf wars made headlines in Maine with large rewards for information on vandalism to boats and traps.
The territorial culture runs deep. While the sailboat captain who told me the tales of this said books had been written about these infamous lobster wars, I struggled to find documentation.
A book called The Lobster Gangs of Maine details how Maine lobster fisherman are “caught up in a thick and complex web of social relationships.” and “replaces our romantic image of the lobsterman with descriptions of the highly territorial and hierarchical ‘harbor gangs.'”
I also found a fiction book called The Lobster War in which such territorial conflict sets the stage for a dramatic story.
Even though I couldn’t find many definitive historical accounts of the lobster wars, I did find numerous articles about a territorial tiff that included boat ramming, screaming matches and a shooting. It’s the kind of story books are made of.
The Matinicus Island Feud
The tale begins with a trap and ends with a trial.
Maine laws on lobstering are clear. The ancient practice of Maine island families claiming exclusive territories in island waters isn’t, unless you’re from the islands. Boundaries are locked by ancestry, passed down through generations and guarded by fierce clan-like loyalties.
On the tiny island of Matinicus, which has no paved roads or grocery stores, these informal laws of lobstering reign. One understood convention is that to fish in the waters off Matinicus, a lobsterman or lobsterwoman must live on the island. But, in a place that only has about 50 year-round residents, very few amenities, and limited transportation to the mainland, what constitutes “living on the island” can be unclear. And many residents also have homes on the mainland.
It’s under these conditions that a woman, Janan Miller, found herself standing on a pier holding a shotgun while her father, Vance Bunker, shot a man in the neck.
What lead to this altercation? It was a slow burn of escalating confrontations until the explosion.
Janan Miller grew up on the island and married an off-islander Alan. Because Janan was a native and the two owned property on the island, Alan believed he had a right to fish there. The other lobsterman of the island, however, didn’t agree, particularly a man named Chris Young.
After several altercations, that included threats and even use of pepper spray, the feuding families found themselves on the boat docks, drawing guns like in the old west. During the confrontation, Vance shot Young in the neck.
What happened on that dock exactly? Only the people there will ever know.
According to news stories at the time, Vance and Janan stood trial. Both were found not guilty.
If I knew nothing of this story and had to guess when it occurred, I’d say at least in the 1950s. It happened in 2009. Just 8 years ago.
That is, however, long enough for someone to write a book. Non-fiction writers, take note. This story has some pretty long lobster legs.
If you want to read more, here are some articles.