An ongoing discussion of politics, law, pop culture, and fine draperies.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Adventures in Journalism, Part One:
Old Lobster Wars, New Combatants


I've stumbled upon or been made aware by friends a handful of really good news reporting stories over the past week, either addressing big stories of local interest or local stories of big interest. I'll post them individually, as I need to do some excerpting just to make sure we don't get bumped by the evil archivists.

Thanks to Chris at All Things Maine for pointing me to The Christian Science Monitor, which published this great two-part story last week looking at the lobster wars of Matinicus Island. Here's Part Two.

Quick geography lesson: Matinicus, as the story notes, "the most seaward of Maine's inhabited islands, is cut off from the mainland town of Rockland, and the nearest police station, by 20 miles of water." As the reporter, notes:

Matinicus is the farthest-flung Maine island with a year-round population. There
are no antique shops, no saltwater-taffy stands, no restaurants. Groceries are flown in, and the state ferry comes no more than four times a month. The one-room schoolhouse had no students in one recent year.

More importantly, for the purposes of this lobstering story:
A touch of Wild West anarchism has always been a part of lobstering. Despite advances in technology and conservation, the profession is much as it was centuries ago: One or two men in small boats vying in open water for a finite resource, far from the eyes of the law.

On paper, anyone with a Maine lobster license can set traps almost anywhere. But on Matinicus, perhaps more than in other fishing communities, lobstermen patrol their turf with a roguish ferocity.

Outlaw justice here is equal parts tradition and necessity. Cut off by 20 miles of water from the mainland town of Rockland and the nearest police station, islanders don't make a habit of calling the cops.

On Matinicus, the nonnatives learn quickly that only one subject can make a man pull a knife or reach for a gun.

And that's what happened that drew the attention of Mary Baker Eddy and Co. Other newspapers in Maine – namely the Rockland Village Soup (ID maybe required), and Courier-Gazette – continue to cover the story as it unravels.

The gist is this: a fisherman cannot keep traps in Matinicus waters unless he lives in Matinicus, not according to law, but according to the Matinicus fisherman. One guy, Victor Ames, thought that he could continue fishing Matinicus despite moving to the mainland. The islanders weren't so keen on his idea and started cutting his lines, which angered the guy who left. One day, he literally came after those he believed were responsible – by steering his boat toward theirs, as if to ram them on the open water. Knowing to expect this, one such potential target, Joseph Bray, shot at his would be assailant with a shotgun. Now both are in court.

Speaking of …

Village Soup's Anthony Ronzio reported last week that the Maine Superior Court denied motions by both men to allow them to keep their weapons while changes against them remain outstanding. Not sure about the ethics of this one, but knowing how Village Soup is about making certain stories "subscriber only," here is the key text:

Many boats fishing from Matinicus, wary of the threats, are now carrying loaded
firearms while offshore.

"I used to have two [firearms] up until [June 13]," said Lavon Ames — a Matinicus fisherman and Victor Ames' nephew — during a hearing Wednesday in Sixth District Court in Rockland. "I have six after that."

Wednesday's hearing centered on a motion by Bray to let him possess a firearm, which he has been prohibited to do since his arrest. A cadre of Matinicus fishermen joined Bray to offer testimony on escalating tensions around the remote island, which they blamed on threats by Victor Ames.

"What keeps the peace on Matinicus is that people are armed," said Chris MacLean, Bray's attorney, in arguing for the change. "A firearm on board is likely to deter more problems. The only thing that's been a deterrent thus far has been a firearm."

MacLean referred to June 13, the day Victor Ames is accused of charging at Bray's vessel with his own boat, making throat-slashing gestures as he passed. Bray claims he fired at Victor Ames as warning shots, although in an affidavit, Matthew Briggs, Ames' sternman, says he heard the bullets go by.

"The bullet came so close to us that I could hear, over the engine, the whistle of the bullet," Briggs' affidavit states. "I turned to Victor [Ames] and heard another shot fired, again I could hear the whistle of the bullet."

Briggs also denies he, or Ames, made any threatening gestures toward Bray.

In testimony Wednesday, however, fishermen said Bray was one of many that felt threatened June 13. Tad Miller, a fisherman and Victor Ames' son-in-law, said Victor Ames passed menacingly by his boat, Mallory Sky, as well.

"He made a couple of passes by me. About five minutes before he ran up on [Bray] he ran up on me," said Miller. "[Victor Ames] was going boat-to-boat that day."

"Everybody knows he has made a lot of talk, about death threats and trap-cutting," Miller said. "I certainly think he is capable of doing those things. He definitely bears watching."

"I'm afraid for Tad's life, and my own," said Lavon Ames, who testified after Miller. "I had a strong feeling [Victor Ames] would come up on me shooting."

Assistant District Attorney Carrie Carney, the prosecutor, strongly objected to allowing Bray to have a firearm.

"Matinicus is still part of the state of Maine, and Maine does not promote vigilante justice," said Carney. "That is what is happening. I feel it's important not to change the [conditions], because someone will get hurt."

Court documents indicate Bray actually fired at the Hey Baby while the boat was moving away from the Si Ling. Carney said the positions of the boats argued against self-defense, as Bray was not in imminent danger when firing the shots.

MacLean said the Matinicus fleet remains on alert for Victor Ames, who is "lurking around in the fog, watching people" aboard the Hey Baby.

MacLean also introduced, as evidence, a 1953 photograph from the New York Times, in which Victor Ames is perched on the transom of a lobster boat with a shotgun across his lap. The article with the photo was about a prior "lobster war."

"[Victor Ames] is a threat and a menace," said MacLean. "If somebody tries to kill you, you have a right to self-defense. There is no allegation that [Bray] is a threat to
anyone else in the world, except Victor Ames, who tried to kill him in mid-June."

Victor Ames, on Thursday, staunchly denied talking to anyone on Matinicus, or issuing any threats. "I never made a death threat toward anybody," said Ames, 73. "I haven't retaliated. And I haven't been to Matinicus this year in the fog."

Ames said this controversy started with his ill health, and the enlistment of a fisherman from Vinalhaven to tend his gear in Matinicus grounds, which spurred retaliation by the Matinicus fleet.

"The whole crowd out there cut $30,000 or $40,000 of my gear," he said. "They're paranoid, and stirring up stuff that isn't true."

Ames admitted, however, he won't be intimidated. "If they're going to gang up on me, someone will be hurt," he said. "I'm not going to put up with that. I'll put my life on the line."

And the photograph, he added, was taken during a duck hunting trip.

Judge William Anderson denied Bray's motion to return his gun, but expressed understanding toward the reasoning. "I don't think this motion is preposterous," the judge said.

"This looks like the type of case where one, strictly speaking, did not have to use a
firearm," said Anderson, who added Victor Ames and Bray are barred from contact
per bail conditions. "If there is no contact, there is no need for a firearm."

For other fishermen, however, the need for a firearm remains greater than ever.

"In a tense situation, you don't take any chances," said Miller, during testimony. "Which is why I had a loaded gun sitting by me when [Victor Ames] went sailing by that day."

Sidenote: The lawyer who represents Joseph Bray – Chris MacLean – plays and sponsors a softball team in my league, and shares his practice with a friend of mine with whom I played cards last winter. The pangs of smalltown lawyerin' … it's fair to say that I'd prefer not to be on the enemies lists of any Matinicus lobstermen.


Anonymous megan said...

you know, not too many years ago, some lady named gilbert wrote a novel that seems to have reached into the future, and stolen from current events. as posted on your blog. which begs me to wonder, how is so much time devoted to this thing, given your job, wife, and child? do you sleep? go outside, much?

9:28 PM

Blogger Rikki said...

I can sleep BECAUSE I devote so much time to this thing. Call it catharsis.

9:42 PM

Blogger Rikki said...

By the way, while I have to take the novel by Ms. Gilbert thing on faith, I should note that one of the guys quoted by the CSM reporter wrote this book of non-fiction. It's pretty interesting in itself, but even more so in that its historical nature seems to be, as you hint, repeating itself.

9:48 PM

Anonymous Hopper said...

Although I have many friends in the business, and respect many more of them, I'm sick of hearing about the self-rightous lobsterman, fisherman, and clam diggers who think they have special rights to OUR resources, and fight even each other over the little scraps of life left in the sea. One positive thing about this occupation is that it keeps the socially inept, pill popping barbarians out at sea most of the day and out of contact with the rest of us. What will we do with these people when the ocean warms another 3 degrees and the lobster population fades? There's always county jail.......

7:31 AM

Blogger Rikki said...

[ clapping ]

Wait ... does that mean I'm gonna get shot at now? I might have typed too much ....

You highlight the key separation between lobster fishing and agriculture, and why the former is so properly likened to the old time image of cowboys on the range -- call it the "other tragedy of the commons."

Surely, some measure of cooperation flourishes in lobstering communities either through the state-mandated zone council structure or self-organized co-ops. However, even lobstermen -- the most cooperative, agriculture-like fishermen out there -- often yield to the selfish impulses at the root of your disgust. This is so because fishermen don't own the resources, contrary to what they would let on. Without pre-harvest resource ownership, it takes a lot to get beyond "take what you can, while you can."

Sounds a little like cowboys of the late 19th century ... what happened to them? I think they became oil men ...

"The banks feel like cathedrals ... I guess casinos took their place."
- you too

8:47 AM

Blogger Jim said...

Oh, the nice lady wrote (I'm paraphrasing) "How do have time to write so much and keep up on all the news--it's all so confusing to me...."

Ah, maybe "American Idol" isn't your idea of how to spend your free time?

I love the broad brush of Hopper, as in all fishermen are "socially inept, pill popping barbarians..."

Think he got his fishermen confused with some of the flatlanders who are turning the Pine Tree State into Massachusetts north?

BTW, if you haven't read Colin Woodard's "The Lobster Coast", I recommend it to go along with Acheson's book, which is now next on my books to read about Maine, so I have some historical context to frame my writing about the PST.

12:34 PM

Blogger Rikki said...

Right -- reminds me of something else I wanted to put in the original post.

I'm reading The Secret Life of Lobsters right now, which is pretty amazing in another light entirely.

I'm not done yet, but I recommend what I've read so far. Basically, it's all about the development of the fishery as an accident/incident of the depletion of the cod fishery. And he tells the story through lobstermen, regulators, and scientists at Darling Marine Center and Bigelow Labs. One more for the list ...

4:42 PM


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