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Life on Matinicus Island

Life on Matinicus Island
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The shooting happened over lobster traps: who has a right to them, and where. But the deeper causes had more to do with other things: pride, greed, progress, family, what it means to claim a place as home.

Matinicus is one of a vast necklace of islands, more than 3,000 in all, spread out along the Maine coast as far north as the Bay of Fundy. A century ago, 200 or more of them were fishermen’s communities; today, only 14 are inhabited year-round. Of those, Matinicus is the most seaward, and the most indigenous. It is also, by an accident of topography–its distance from the mainland, which makes for less freshwater runoff, plus the mix of shoals and deepwater channels that surround it–the site of the richest lobster grounds on earth. “They’re the best there is, hands down,” says Marty Malloy, who’s been buying lobsters for a living since he got out of the Navy 10 years ago. “There’s no runoff, the water’s colder, the trenches are deep around the island. If I’m buying for my own table, I guarantee you, they’re going to come from Matinicus.”

There was a time when that wouldn’t have mattered much; 50 or 60 years ago, with an island population just shy of 200, there were other ways to make a living here. You could row out in the harbor and catch as many cod as you wanted; there were cattle here then, and horses, geese, and pigs. A few families raised potatoes; almost everyone had a garden. Lobstering was a tougher business in those days: The boats were slower; you couldn’t set your traps more than a few miles out from the island; and you had to haul them up by hand. Two hundred traps, maybe 250, were the most a man could manage. Enough to make a living, but never much better than that.

Then the big trawlers came, with their drag nets and sonar, and depleted the groundfish–so that was the end of that. And the land got farmed out. And the old gasoline engines got traded in for diesels; the boats were faster now, so you could set your traps twice as far out. And with the new hydraulic trap haulers, all you had to do was twist a handle and up they came. Five hundred traps was now a manageable load. Some men began to do well.

By the early 1990s, at least a few were getting rich. With the cod and haddock now gone as predators, the Maine lobster harvest had more than doubled: from 20 million pounds a year to close to 50 million. A two-man boat would come in with a three-day haul of 4,500 pounds, worth $14,000 or more. Matinicus boat owners began wintering in Florida, or buying second homes on the mainland. Some traded up to 600-horsepower diesels that could make it to Rockland in an hour or less. They began buying their groceries there–and the island store, open a century, went under. Whole families moved away entirely, but still showed up to haul their traps. It was somewhere along this cycle that the first real damage was done.

There were 188 people living on Matinicus in 1950, roughly half that 20 years later. There are probably not 35 today. The little one-room K-8 schoolhouse, viewed by just about everyone as the island’s truest pulse, has rarely had more than 10 or 12 students; in recent years the average has been more like half that. (In 2001 it had none at all, but stayed open officially–absorbing the costs required–to avert the bureaucratic death knell that closure would have meant.)

Those still left, their lobstering grounds now within range of any mainlander with a diesel engine, began drawing the lines tighter around the island–“protecting your bottom,” it was called. Threatening notes were left in bottles; trap buoys were tied with half-hitches to warn away encroachers; and sometimes, trap lines were cut.

Five years ago, a member of the Ames clan, who’d left Matinicus years before but never stopped lobstering its waters, began hiring someone else to work his traps. They warned him, then cut his traps. He responded by threatening a ramming; they put two shots across his bow.

“You have to understand: This bottom, for these guys, it’s like the family farm. It’s their legacy; they’ve been working it for generations,” says Marty Malloy, the lobster buyer, who lives on the island with his wife and twin boys. “You don’t just let someone come in and take that away from you.”

More time passed; the economy soured. By the summer of 2009, the price of lobster was at a 12-year low. On Matinicus, where the lines were drawing tighter, they told Vance Bunker that his son-in-law, a mainlander, was no longer welcome to set his traps.

“It used to be you fished here, you lived here,” Clayton Philbrook says. “That was the way it worked–before the boats got fast enough so a man could live in one place and fish in another. So now we got problems. We’ve had problems ever since.”

He’s in his late fifties, a big man with thick arms, a droopy, graying mustache, and a warm but very certain way of saying things. He is descended, he tells me, from a family of shipbuilders who first settled in Bath in the 1770s, migrated to the Penobscot Bay islands, and have been on Matinicus for just under 200 years.

There was a time, Philbrook says, when he had thoughts of leaving the island: He went to college, took courses in aerospace engineering (“I thought maybe I wanted to go into space”), switched to biology, then to photography–but nothing clicked. He came home and got a job as a sternman–an assistant–on another islander’s lobster boat, then other boats after that. Thirteen years ago, he bought his own. Along the way, he married an Ames girl. (“Some people talk about family trees; what we have here is a wreath.”) Their son, Nick, now 30 years old and a captain himself, has been lobstering since he was 8.

All this Philbrook explained to me one rainy spring morning, as we sat together in the cab of his pickup, parked that day at the Matinicus dock, the site of the shooting in July 2009. His boat, the Samantha J., was tied up alongside. For most of the morning, he’d been working on the engine, but the rain was a torrent now, so we were waiting it out in the truck.

At one point as we talked, another pickup pulled up in front of us, and a woman–June Pemberton, once a teacher on the island, now one of two women to captain a lobster boat–got out and began unloading traps. Without a word, Philbrook was out of the cab, and for the next several minutes the two unloaded traps together in the rain.

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

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