FRIENDSHIP, Maine – The sinking of two lobster boats is rekindling memories of hostilities among lobstermen three years ago that led to a near-fatal shooting, boats being sunk and a barrage of lobster trap vandalism along Maine's lobster-rich coast.
Someone this week sabotaged two lobster boats, allowing them to drift free and flood with water before washing ashore in this postcard-pretty harbor. The dispute has shone a light on the unwritten rules of the sea, where fishermen often take matters into their own hands to settle grudges.
Lobstermen for generations have cut trap lines and shouted threats to settle differences over who can set their traps where. In more extreme instances, they've been known to ram boats and fire warning shots into the air.
The vandalism crossed the line late Monday night, when the 28-foot Lobstah Taxi and the 35-foot Fantaseas were sunk. Only a portion of the larger boat's cabin was above water when it was found Tuesday morning on an island outside the harbor. The smaller boat was found on a mainland beach, but escaped serious damage.
Investigators don't know if the attacks were the result of a personal vendetta or a territorial feud. At the least, they've brought unwanted attention to this fishing community 75 miles northeast of Portland.
"It's sad, awful sad," said lobsterman Doug Simmons, 60, as he worked on his gear Thursday in preparation for setting his traps in the coming weeks. "It's cost people a lot of money."
The boats were owned by Gary Jones and his 15-year-old son, Logan, who live in the neighboring town of Cushing, said Marine Patrol Sgt. Rene Cloutier, who is investigating with the Knox County Sheriff's Department and the U.S. Coast Guard.
"There's nothing that says this is a territorial thing," Cloutier said. "It could be, but nothing points that way now."
Gary Jones has been on the receiving end of vandalism before. In 2009, another Cushing lobsterman was charged with cutting 22 of his lobster buoys. At the time, Jones said trap and gear vandalism had cost him nearly $10,000 over three years.
Gary Jones' wife, Tina Jones, said she and her husband aren't commenting on this week's incident, adding that her husband and son are hard-working fishermen.
"People are looking at us and thinking if that happened to us we must be bad-assed people," she said.
This week's boat sinkings are bringing back memories of 2009, when hostilities especially were in high gear.
On remote Matinicus Island, 20 miles offshore, a lobsterman fired a handgun at two fellow lobstermen, hitting one in the neck in a near-fatal dispute over lobster traps. A jury later found Vance Bunker not guilty of elevated aggravated assault.
Two weeks after the shooting, someone sank two lobster boats and damaged a third in Owls Head, another midcoast fishing harbor. Throughout the summer, police investigated a rash of complaints about lobster trap lines being cut, resulting in lost lobster gear.
Last year was relatively calm, but the sinkings in Friendship are raising questions about whether this coming summer will be heated.
For now, there aren't any indicators that tensions are ready to erupt, "knock on wood," said Marine Patrol Maj. Alan Talbot.
"Hopefully it's just a random thing," he said. "But who knows what's to come."
Gary Jones' boat was taken to a boatyard in Owls Head for repairs. His son's boat sits on boat jacks at Lash Boatyard in Friendship.
Lobstermen in town are a reticent bunch, but they'll tell you they think the perpetrator was from somewhere other than Friendship. The Joneses are from Cushing and don't even fish the waters off Friendship, they say.
"You might be able to say this was a Friendship thing if he fished here — but he don't," said lobsterman Kendall Delano as he sanded his trap buoys in a waterfront building.
Wesley Lash, who works for his father at the boatyard, said the sinkings don't reflect well on this sleepy town, which has about 1,200 residents, just a single store and not even a traffic light.
"It gives Friendship a bad name," he said. "People'll say Friendship, that doesn't sound like a friendly place."
Lash's father, also named Wesley, said there have been feuds as long as there's been a lobster industry.
"You go from Portsmouth (N.H.) to Eastport and it's the same thing," he said.
Still, Friendship gets its share of feuding.
Simmons remembers years ago when somebody slammed a crowbar through the hull of another boat, causing it to sink. This past winter, somebody fired a shot from a high-powered rifle into the hull of a lobster boat, Cloutier said. The shooting is under investigation.
"It happened late at night, nobody saw anything and Friendship is a pretty tight-lipped community," he said.