Lobster War in Maine

By Carla Charter

At the mouth of the Bay of Fundy sits Machias Seal Island, a treeless 20-acre rock. It is about 10 miles off of the Maine Coast and 12 miles off of Manan Island, a part of New Brunswick, Canada. Machias Seal Island is home to a Canadian Lighthouse and a colony of Puffins.  The island and the 277 square miles of ocean that surround it are also in a middle of a dispute called the Lobster War.

The ‘Gray Zone’ as the island and the waters around it are known, are part of a dispute that goes back to the end of the Revolutionary War when the US and UK were dividing ownership of the land between the United States and the United Kingdom, according to David Abel, a Pulitzer Prize winning Fisheries and Environmental Issues reporter for the Boston Globe, who along with Andy Laub, writer, cinematographer and editor created a documentary about the Gray Zone dispute, entitled Lobster War.

“There was a rock in the Gulf of Maine between Nova Scotia and Down East Maine. No one cared about that rock, until the last several decades, when warming water in the Gulf of Maine created a boom of lobsters in the waters around the island. Whoever owns the island owns the waters.”

There are confrontations all the time between fishermen and law enforcement, both countries have had their gear confiscated by both sides, Abel said.  There has been angry chatter over the radios and angry verbal exchanges. One lobsterman lost his thumb his gear became tangled in lines.  The fisherman are sabotaging each other as they are competing for the lobster at the bottom, he continued.

Both countries claim the island as their own. At the end of the Revolutionary War the newly independent United States colonies received all islands within 70 miles of their shore. The 1783 Treaty of Paris however, excluded any island which was part of Nova Scotia. The Canadians say a 17th century land grant proves the island was originally part of Nova Scotia. The U.S. State Department officials have said “Our long-standing position is that the Machias Seal Island belongs to the United States. “

Neither side has great interest in solving the dispute through political arbitration either. Abel explained this is due to an earlier dispute between the two countries regarding fishing rights at Georges Bank off of the Massachusetts coast.   The dispute could not be settled so the two countries took it to the World Court who drew a line through the middle of the fishing area called the Hague Line. As a result of this decision both countries lost fishing ground. They are concerned a similar decision could occur regarding the waters around Machias Seal Island, Abel continued.

The movie Lobster Wars had its world premiere recently at Bucksport, Maine’s Alamo Theatre. “The audience was full with lobstermen who were in the film and representatives from both the United States and Canada as well as others. It was nearly a sold-out audience. There was a really great reception for the film,” according to Abel.  Future showings are scheduled in Mystic, Connecticut, Boston, Gloucester and Cape Cod in Massachusetts, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, New York City, Washington D.C. and beyond, Abel said. More information about the documentary and the scheduled showings can be found at www.lobsterwar.com