The tiny island, 22 miles out at sea, is generally so quiet that it is hard to imagine the chaos that descended one midsummer day.
Early that morning, one veteran lobsterman shot and seriously wounded another on the Matinicus wharf, the peak of a dispute over whether the gunman’s son-in-law — a mainlander — could fish in the waters surrounding the island. The feud had been escalating for months, a symptom of the economic crisis battering lobstermen up and down Maine’s coast.
Now the gunman is banned from the island, and the roughly three dozen other lobstermen here are pleading for help. They want the state to carve out a restricted zone where only full-time Matinicus residents can catch lobsters, an extraordinary step that the state is now considering to preserve the local livelihood and the island itself. Such a zone would most likely need legislative approval.
“The idea is to make sure that people who are taking lobsters off this piece of bottom are living here on the island,” said Clayton Philbrook, a lobsterman whose ancestors settled here in the 1820s. “If we lose control, we fold up and die — that’s it.”
The fishing industry is suffering nationally, a victim of depleted stocks, tightening regulations and competition from other countries. But Maine, which produces 80 percent of the nation’s lobster catch and depends more on fishing than most states, is especially hard hit.
Lobstering is as vital as oxygen on Matinicus, which is smaller than Central Park. But the global recession has made an already fragile livelihood all the more so, forcing Maine’s lobster fleet to grapple with the steepest price decline in decades.
Soft-shell lobster was fetching about $2.30 a pound at the docks last week, down from $4.25 in August 2005; the hard-shell variety was going for about $4.50 a pound, down from $6.50. That drop, combined with higher costs for bait, fuel and gear, has made tensions in the industry as thick as Down East fog.
Law enforcement officials blame those tensions for a rash of hostile incidents among lobstermen, including the shooting on Matinicus and the sinking of three boats at the wharf in Owls Head this month. Those attacks and a spate of trap cuttings have led the marine police to increase patrols and have made lobstermen, wary by nature, more anxious than ever.
“I wake up in the middle of the night thinking, ‘How did it ever get to this point?’ ” said Joseph Bray, who has fished here for 22 years. “People are so tired of conflict.”
Officially, anyone with a Maine lobster license can set traps almost anywhere in state waters. Most lobstermen are allowed 800 traps each, making for a crowded ocean floor.
But unofficially, each harbor has its own boundaries, determined by local lobstermen over the decades. Newcomers often find their buoys snatched or their trap lines cut. The lobstermen who live on Maine’s rugged islands are especially territorial and known for practicing frontier justice; in one notorious case in 2000, two lobstermen fought over turf with a pitchfork and a fish gaff.
The “gear wars” are as old as lobstering itself; with few official rules, the state tacitly allows them. The feuds are usually resolved more quietly, but in this summer of discontent they have taken on operatic tones.
The authorities say that on July 19, Vance Bunker, 68, shot Chris Young, 41, in the neck with a .22-caliber pistol after the two had argued for weeks over whether Mr. Bunker’s son-in-law had the right to fish off Matinicus. Mr. Bunker has said he had to use pepper spray to get Mr. Young off his boat earlier that day; he has been charged with aggravated assault but is free on bail on the condition that he stay off the island.
“The newcomer has moved his traps and taken them back to where he had been fishing for 40-plus years,” Mr. Bray said of Mr. Bunker’s son-in-law, Alan Miller. “I believe that defused the situation, but we need to put something in place so that we don’t have someone else next month try the same thing.”
The idea of a resident-only lobstering zone is not without precedent. The state approved a two-mile “conservation zone” around Monhegan Island in 1998, restricting access to local lobstermen, who had complained about interlopers from the mainland.
But in return, Monhegan lobstermen agreed to set fewer traps — they are now limited to 300 each, far fewer than the 800 allowed in most of the state’s waters. Lobstermen there now say the limit is too harsh and have asked the state to reconsider.
Mr. Philbrook said Matinicus should not have to accept a lower trap limit because its economy is in a more desperate state than Monhegan’s, which benefits from tourism as well as fishing.
“It’s a different situation,” he said. “We have nothing else.”
George Lapointe, the state’s commissioner of marine resources, said he had not yet decided whether to endorse a resident-only zone for Matinicus and had to consider the constitutional rights of all of the state’s roughly 5,800 licensed lobstermen.
“I’ve had three other islands say they’re interested in getting their own zone if we create one for Matinicus,” Mr. Lapointe said. “One of the concerns is the balkanization of lobster territories along the coast.”
He said that enforcing the zone around Monhegan had proved expensive for the state, and that while the shooting on Matinicus had put the island’s problems under a magnifying glass, lobstermen up and down Maine’s coast were hurting.
Mr. Philbrook predicted that the state would ultimately allow a resident-only lobstering zone off Matinicus, partly out of self-interest.
“It would solve a bunch of problems for them,” he said. “They may not be looking at it from the perspective that it’s going to save the community, but they just figure that it’s going to cut down on the gear conflicts and the troubles that have been going on.”
Mr. Philbrook said that the state would ideally limit the number of lobstermen in the waters off Matinicus to a few dozen, but that if “the right person comes along” — a son of a local lobsterman, for example, or anyone else who committed to living there full time — the number could grow.
“Anybody from the mainland that’s got less than five years fishing our bottom,” he said, “had better start looking for a piece of land.”