Life on Matinicus Island
Mostly, he talked about the business of lobstering: how the cost of bait and fuel had gone through the roof, while the price being paid for a pound of lobster was making it hard to get by. (“It’s cruise ships and casinos that drive the lobster market,” Marty Malloy would say to me later, “and we’re in a beer-and-salad time.”)
In 2009, Philbrook said, he’d sold more lobster than he’d ever sold before, yet barely covered his costs. “It’s hard times for everyone,” he said.
He tried his best, as they all do here, to stay clear of the subject of the shooting. But it was never far away.
He said he worried sometimes that with the way things were going, his son, Nick, could be the last Philbrook to make a living here: that if people kept leaving for the mainland and just coming back to haul lobster off the bottom (“taking and taking, and never giving back”), the island, like all those others, could die a lingering death. “And I’d do about whatever I had to do to see that doesn’t happen,” he said. “We all of us out here would.”
I asked Philbrook about the “fishhouse meetings” I’d heard about that had been going on the last several years: all the lobstermen on the island, gathering every springtime in the schoolhouse or church basement to set the rules that would govern, among other things, who could lobster and who couldn’t. There was nothing legally binding in anything they decided; a licensed lobsterman, as far as the law is concerned, can set his traps anywhere he chooses. But that was never the point.
There’s a way of doing things, Philbrook told me, and it just seemed as though the time had come to get things clear once and for all. And so they’d made it formal: “If you’re born here, you can fish here–or if you’re the child of someone who was. If you marry one of our daughters, you can usually fish here, too. And if you fish here, we want you to live here. That isn’t the law. That’s just how it works.”
It was a while before either of us mentioned Alan Miller. But there was never any doubt about whom we were talking. Miller is Vance Bunker’s son-in-law; he married Bunker’s daughter Janan several years ago, bought a house on Matinicus not long after, and had been lobstering island waters ever since. But the couple’s primary home was on the mainland; some said their island house wasn’t even winterized. There’s a name among islanders for people like that: “fuel savers.” It isn’t a good way to be known.
“He’s not a part of the community; he never has been,” Philbrook said to me. “You want to be a part of the community, put your kids in the school here, support the island, pay into it–that’s one thing. He didn’t. He rubbed people wrong. He had a bad reputation. And in the end, your reputation is all you have. Anyhow, we voted him off.”
They voted him off the island–out of island waters. He defied them: set 400 traps around Matinicus, reportedly with his father-in-law’s blessing. When half of them were cut two weeks later, he was sure he knew by whom: a pair of stepbrothers, Chris Young and Weston Ames, both in their early forties, with 400 years of island ancestry between them. So he cut theirs. Or maybe Vance Bunker cut them, or maybe both of them did, or neither; it can be foggy off Matinicus in the early mornings.
However it happened, traps were cut, tempers flared, violence was threatened. And then, at a little before 6:00 on the morning of July 20, 2009, one of the men, Chris Young, boarded Vance Bunker’s boat, accused him of cutting his traps, and, Bunker would say later, threatened to kill him. The two men wrestled. Bunker repelled Young with a can of pepper spray.
Most of this is pretty certain. A good part of the rest, including the bigger questions of background and intent, and who was right or wrong, depend mostly on whom you ask. It’s also at this stage of things that the silence sets in. Or you get your answers off the record.
“Vance and Chris getting into it, there’s nothing new there,” one islander tells me. “The Bunkers and the Youngs feuding–that goes back. It could have been something their grandfathers were fighting about.”
This from someone who recalls the days, 30 and 40 years ago, of church suppers, bingo nights, and community softball games; when times were so tight that most of the men fished year-round (the norm these days is April through December) and still went out at night with herring nets; and grudges, no matter how bitter, were nearly always trumped by need.
“I cut a few of yours [traps], you cut a few of mine–that was always going on–until the time came when somebody lost their boat or their roof blew off in a storm,” the islander says. “Then it didn’t matter if it was your worst enemy; you were there for them–because you knew you’d need the same if it was you. That’s how things are when you have to fight to survive. And we did. Now you’ve got the big fishermen with their fast boats–Alan Miller, he’s got two boats, he’s not a young guy anymore, he’s already made his money–who come in not caring about anything, just looking to fish some sweet waters.”
When Miller arrived at the Matinicus dock that morning, Ames and Young were awaiting him. So was his wife, Janan–who had seen from her window the men converging on the harbor, and had brought with her a 12-gauge shotgun she would claim she didn’t know how to use. And Vance Bunker was there; he’d arrived with his sternman in a blue pickup with a .22-caliber handgun and an AK-47 assault rifle with nine loaded magazines.