PORTLAND, Me. — Being a lobsterman has never been easy. You go to work at dawn, haul heavy traps up from the ocean floor all day long and only make a decent living if you're lucky.
Now, the job in Maine is getting even tougher. Beside fighting the elements and the economy, lobstermen are fighting each other--and a new curfew.
Open feuding and clandestine vandalism are so bad in Portland Harbor that many lobstermen are packing guns.
"It's really bad out there this summer. It's crazy," said a lobsterman who has lost 80 traps this season.
"I don't carry a gun, but most people do," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he feared retribution. "I don't know if you know how serious this is."
The state took the unusual step this month of limiting lobstering hours in the harbor, a curfew authorities hope will help cool tempers and ease tensions.
"We're trying to stop violence here," said Maine Marine Patrol Lt. Joseph Fessenden. "We can't sit back and let this happen."
Rivalry among lobstermen is nothing new, but nowhere is feuding more intense than in the deep, lobster-rich harbor of Maine's largest city, where 30 or 40 boats jostle over limited territory.
In past summers, Portland Harbor confrontations included fistfights, boat rammings and gun-brandishing incidents. Fishermen retaliate against each other by cutting trap lines.
There have been no reported shootings this year.
Maine's lobster fishermen operate under unwritten rules establishing territory based on seniority, but disputes have grown in recent years as more lobstermen entered the business.
Authorities monitor verbal sniping on marine radio. The state decided to take action when trash-talk escalated to death threats, Fessenden said.
Under an emergency 90-day curfew, lobstermen may pull traps only between 6 a.m. and 4 p.m., instead of the normal summer hours beginning a half hour before sunrise and ending a half hour after sunset.
The limited hours should make it easier for the Marine Patrol to watch lobstermen and keep them off the water at night, when much of the trap line-cutting takes place.
As for guns, the same rules apply to weapons on boats as on land; lobstermen must have a concealed-weapon permit if the gun is not visible.
Patten White, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen's Assn., said the problem comes down to too many traps in the harbor.
Statewide, there are more than 3,000 working lobstermen with more than 2 million traps in the Gulf of Maine.
Some lobstermen say a national economic slump has caused more people to start lobstering, and ensuing abundant catches drive prices down.
The 1992 lobster catch was 26.9 million pounds worth $71.9 million, compared with the all-time high in 1991 of 30.4 million pounds worth $71.2 million, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Dockside prices started high this year but have fallen to about $2.99 a pound for soft-shell "chicks," one-pound lobsters.
Lobsterman Norman Solak said he has lost 75 traps--worth about $2,500--in just one week. But he said most colleagues aren't vandalizing trap lines.
"It's not a territorial feud," Solak said. "It's only a few bad apples."