SALEM, Mass. — Lobstermen, long known as a crusty, bad-tempered bunch who occasionally come to blows over the tiny patches of ocean where they make their living, are fighting a new enemy: divers.
Lobstermen claim trap break-ins by underwater thieves have become so common that they have coined the term "jigging" to describe them and allegedly have turned to violence to stop them.
The hostility came to a boil on June 18, when two lobstermen allegedly attacked a diver when he surfaced in the Atlantic off Salem, said police Officer Conrad J. Prosniewski.
The district attorney's office is looking into allegations by diver Alan D. Jahsman, who said the lobstermen dropped traps on his head, grabbed a line attached to his arm and sped off in their boat, dragging him through the water until he freed himself.
The lobstermen, who have not been identified because they have not been charged with a crime, told police the incident was an accident.
Bad blood has brewed between the two groups since 1970 when the Legislature made it legal for licensed recreational divers to catch lobsters by hand if they don't sell them. The practice is prohibited in Maine and New Hampshire.
The 1,200 commercial lobstermen who make their living off the Massachusetts coast are far outnumbered by the 4,000 recreational divers licensed to catch lobsters, said state fisheries biologist Neil Churchill, citing 1984 license statistics.
The Professional Association of Diving Instructors certifies at least 3,500 new divers in Massachusetts every year, said Herbert Ward, manager of membership at the agency's California headquarters.
"There's a lot of good divers, but the majority are bad. They're always jigging our pots," said lobsterman Michael Zdanowicz.
Ed Nickerson said he surfaced from a dive off Scituate in 1978 to find an angry lobsterman awaiting him, sure that the diver had poached lobsters from his pots.
"He was standing over the stern with a shotgun," said Nickerson, now an instructor with the Professional Assn. of Diving Instructors in Santa Ana. The lobsterman only threatened him, Nickerson said.
Nickerson said few divers go near pots. "The feeling among divers is that to be caught anywhere near a lobster pot is certain trouble," he said.
Zdanowicz, however, said he often sees a telltale trail of bubbles near his traps and once found a diver's glove in a pot and attempted to harm at least one diver.
"I swung at him with a gaff," the lobsterman admitted.
Poaching lobsters is punishable by fines of at least $50 per lobster.
A few North Shore towns have banned diving from their beaches during the daytime, claiming divers interfere with bathers and hurt tourism, said Phil Coates, director of the state Marine Fisheries Service.
Rockport barred divers from several beaches that were favorite lobstering spots. When the state intervened, the town compromised by banning divers from beaches until 10 a.m. -- to give lobstermen time to pull up pots before divers could get to them, Coates said.
"They presupposed that divers were stealing lobsters," he said. "My feeling is most of them are pretty responsible guys."
Unfortunately, lobstermen's favorite spots often happen to be divers'. The rocky bottom off one island where many lobsters live also attracts about 125 divers on a good weekend day, said Rick Fratto, manager of the New England Divers Inc. store in Beverly.
"It's like driving in downtown Boston," said Fratto. "People start cutting you off and you do see a fistfight."
Salem Harbor Master James F. Cahill said he has heard only one complaint from a diver this year, although a lobsterman punched his assistant last year when the official boarded his boat for an inspection.
"Before there were divers, lobstermen used to shoot each other," Cahill said.