Island lobstering fight plays out in Maine court

Father, daughter on trial in attack

By Clarke Canfield
Associated Press / March 12, 2010

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ROCKLAND, Maine — Even under the rough-and-tumble rules of the sea that Maine lobstermen live by, staring down the barrel of a .12-gauge shotgun is extreme.

But that is where fishermen and half brothers Christopher Young and Weston Ames found themselves last summer on Steamboat Wharf on Matinicus Island. They were attempting to confront another lobsterman they suspected of cutting their fishing lines, costing them tens of thousands of dollars in gear.

As Ames moved toward Janan Miller, who leveled the shotgun at him, her 68-year-old father, Vance Bunker, drew a .22-caliber handgun. What Ames and Young didn’t know was that an AK-47 Soviet-style assault rifle with 270 rounds of ammunition and a .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol were on the seat of Bunker’s pickup parked nearby.

Details of last summer’s so-called lobster wars have been spilling forth this week in testimony in a coastal courtroom, where Bunker is being tried on charges of shooting Young. His daughter, 45, is being tried on a reckless conduct charge.

Jurors deliberated for three hours yesterday before being sent home for the night. Deliberations will resume this morning. The shooting was fueled by a feud over whether Miller’s husband, Alan Miller, should be able to fish in the lobster-rich waters off Matinicus.

Bunker, fearful for his daughter’s life and seething over an earlier confrontation with Young, fired his pistol that July 20 morning. The bullet, Ames testified, whizzed so close to his head he could feel its whoosh.

Bunker then fired a second shot, striking Young in the neck. He fell to the ground, blood spilling onto the wharf stacked high with lobster traps. Young testified this week that he is no longer able to work as a fisherman because the shooting left him with limited use of his left arm and hand.

The shooting was the culmination of an ongoing dispute among a group of lobstermen on Matinicus, an island 20 miles out to sea that is home to about 50 residents, nearly all of them connected to the lobster trade.

As long as there has been a lobstering industry, fishermen in Maine have feuded as they follow unofficial and legally unenforceable rules of the ocean that dictate who can fish where. Lobstermen on Matinicus are fiercely protective of their waters and don’t want fishermen from elsewhere encroaching on them. Alan Miller was from a small harbor on the mainland.

Young and Ames suspected Bunker and Miller had cut their fishing gear. But Miller and Bunker had suspicions of their own, thinking Young and Ames had been cutting the lines to Miller’s traps.

After discovering that morning that his fishing lines had been cut, Young pulled his boat alongside Bunker’s in Matinicus Harbor and jumped aboard.

He and Bunker grappled, staggering around and cursing each other when Young threatened to kill Bunker, according to testimony from Bunker’s 44-year-old sternman, Thomas Bernardi.

That is when Bunker sprayed a can of pepper spray into Young’s eyes.

Temporarily blinded, Young made his way back to his boat and left. Bunker called police.

Later that morning, Alan Miller brought his lobster boat to the wharf. As Miller pulled his boat up, the cursing began.

That’s when Janan Miller stepped out from behind some lobster traps with a shotgun. Vance Bunker appeared on the other side of stacked traps with his .22-caliber pistol.

Inside Bunker’s truck was an AK-47 and a .45-caliber revolver owned by Bernardi.

Bunker said he fired the shots because he thought Ames was wrestling the shotgun from his daughter and that her life was in jeopardy.