Global Politics

The US and Canada are in a protracted dispute over their border. And it all comes down to lobsters

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Maine coast

An island off the coast of Maine is at the center of a long-running — and decidedly low intensity — border disagreement between the US and Canada.

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Someone35/Wikimedia Commons

America's ambassadors, US senators, and even the president have been spending a lot of time worrying about hostilities with Iran. But it might be time to start worrying about our “friendly” neighbor to the north.

OK, not really. But the two are locked in a serious border dispute. And tensions have been rising.

American and Canadian lobstermen are arguing over the fishing rights for the waters surrounding three unpopulated islands off the coast of Maine — or Nova Scotia, depending on who you talk to.

The problem is as old as the the United States, and a lot older than Canada — 232 years old to be exact. The Treaty of Paris ended the Revolutionary War, but its ambiguities have caused a number of border disputes between the US and Canada. All have been resolved. Except one.

Stephen Kelly, a professor at Duke University who studies border disputes and a former American diplomat to Canada, vacations in Maine right near Machias Seal Island, which is the biggest of the three disputed islands. It boasts little more than a lighthouse.

“This year, the lobster crop is down, and the price of lobster has gone up,” Kelly says. “The word is out that there’s a lot of lobster around Machias Seal Island. Canadian lobsterman from as far away as Nova Scotia are coming into waters that are disputed. And if you don’t know who owns Machias Seal Island, you draw a circle around it, and the fishery around it is really what’s in contention here.”

Canadian news outlets have zeroed in on the conflict.

“It’s not that bad,” he says. “But there’s definitely a feeling that there’s a new element in the fishery this summer.”

And Kelly, who has talked with some of the locals in the town of Cutler, a few miles from Machias Seal Island, about this issue, says this disputed territory is extremely important to the lobstermen in the area.

“More than 50 percent of their fishing area is in this so-called ‘gray zone,’” he says. “They’re concerned about it, and there’s actually kind of a feeling of pessimism. I didn’t take a poll, but the couple of people I’ve talked to in Cutler worry that any resolution of this problem is going to be bad for them. The conclusion I’ve reached from this summer, and I’ve been looking at this issue for three years, is that the status quo is probably not going to work anymore.”

He adds: “Border problems don’t fade away. They fester, and then something happens, and you get nationalists on both sides of the border yelling and screaming.”

Though not as extreme, some have compared this border dispute to that between China and Japan. The nations are at odds over a group of islands in the East China Sea — both countries have claimed the islands as their own.

“Those rocks in the East China Sea that they’re fighting over are also treeless and unpopulated,” says Kelly. “There are actually two people who live on Machias Seal Island — they are Canadian lighthouse keepers.”

In June, Kelly spoke with the lighthouse keepers on Machias Seal Island. Both go out for 28-day shifts.

“The lighthouse is automatic — they do absolutely nothing except mow the lawn,” he says. “They are there strictly to maintain Canada’s sovereignty claim.”

There are border disputes across the world, and Kelly says that the US and Canada should show the global community that these problems can be solved peacefully and logically.

“The U.S. and Canada share a 5,525-mile border — the longest in the world,” Kelly says. “With our history of friendship, that Canada’s our largest trading partner and oil supplier — that border is really important to both countries. If we can’t work out a problem like this, then how do you expect China and Japan to work out theirs, or China and India?”

So is Secretary of State John Kerry taking a break from selling the Iran nuclear deal to negotiate with Canada over Machias Seal Island? Not exactly. And US Senator Susan Collins says this dispute won’t change the loving relationship between Maine and Canada.

“In Maine, we have such close ties to Canada,” says Sen. Collins. “There are so many families, including my own, that are intermingled. I don’t see this as a creating a huge rift between the two countries.”

But U.S. Senator Angus King isn’t so sure.

“Robert Frost’s old saying is that ‘Good fences make good neighbors,’” he says. “If there isn’t a fence and there’s a lack of clarity, then it could lead to confrontation, which would serve no one’s interest. I know that it is rising to the level of federal attention, and I certainly intend to push that process along.”

This story first aired as an interview on PRI's The Takeaway, a public radio program that invites you to be part of the American conversation.

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