Island in a storm; Both US and Canada lay claim to a granite speck in Gulf of Maine

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Capt. Barna B. Norton looks out his kitchen window across Jonesport Harbor and up the Maine coast, now a splash of brilliant orange sandwiched between black water and dark rain clouds.

Fifteen nautical miles to the northeast, a smaller storm has been brewing for 200 years on Machias Seal Island - a guano-covered speck of granite claimed by both the United States and Canada. And Captain Norton, who has been ferrying bird watchers and photographers to the island since 1940, is up to his hip boots in the latest round of the dispute.

Canada built a lighthouse on the island in 1832; declared it a bird sanctuary in 1944; and in June of this year, restricted the number of visitors to 25 a day to protect the puffins and Arctic terns nesting there.

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Captain Norton says those on both sides of the issue got along well until early June, when the Canadian Wildlife Service warden on the island ordered him to land three tourists on a ramp ''when the sea was running and it was unsafe. I informed him (the warden) he had no authority over me as I was a United States citizen and this was United States territory.''

Norton says after he landed the tourists behind a protected ledge, the warden threatened him with arrest by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and jail in Canada.

Norton then produced a letter from the State Department's David A. Colson, assistant legal adviser for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs. Mr. Colson had assured Captain Norton in May ''that Machias Seal Island is part of the United States, and has been since the founding of the Republic. . . . You have every right to ignore any regulations that Canada might pretend to set for Machias Seal Island.''

''We honored the treaty (of Paris in 1783), I'm just waiting for them (Canadians) to honor it,'' Captain Norton says in his downeast drawl. ''You can't negotiate, 'cause we own it.''

Canada, however, says that treaty - which defined the US-Canada border at the close of the American Revolution - has no bearing on ownership of the island, which lies 11 miles southwest of New Brunswick's Grand Manan Island. Grand Manan Island was awarded to Britain in 1817 by a commission set up by the Treaty of Ghent. Some Canadians claim Machias Seal Island is part of the Grand Manan Archipelago of about 100 tiny islands scattered in the shoals southwest of Grand Manan.

An official in Canada's Department of External Affairs states very simply: ''There is no dispute as far as we are concerned. We have maintained a lighthouse on the island since 1832 and we consider it our island. It is a Canadian island and Canadian-regulated, and if we have to protect birds we will call on those regulations.''

Although the puffins and terns left the island in mid-August for their annual migration south, the storm has not been allowed to blow itself out.

A Canadian newspaper picked up the story of Norton's confrontation with the warden. It reported that Captain Norton was ''flooding the island'' with visitors and endangering the bird populations:

''More than 1,300 bird watchers, biologists, and environmentalists have flocked to the six-hectare-square (about 15 acres) island this year, nearly double the number of recent years. Norton, who has accounted for nearly 500 of this year's visitors, vows to keep them coming and says his son may add a second boat next year unless the dispute is resolved,'' the Saint John Telegraph Journal reported in September.

Captain Norton denies the report. ''I'll go along with their protection of the birds - they're attacking the wrong guy on that one. I come from a long line of people interested in the environment. But I'm not going to flood that island. That's crazy. It's my business.'' As for his son, ''He's still got two years in the Coast Guard,'' Norton says.

''There's always someone (who) wants to stir up trouble,'' he continues. ''It's not the local people. Someone in an office somewheres wants to stir up things. They're using that particular environmental thing to wrestle a claim on Machias Seal Island.''

There have been other claims to the island during the past 200 years. In 1976 , for example, when the possibility of offshore oil exploration in the area was raised, the 1956 graduating class of Grand Manan High School staked a mineral claim on Machias Seal Island. After some initial publicity, the claim seems to have been forgotten.

Over the years there have been small feuds between Maine and New Brunswick lobstermen fishing the area around the island, but there has been little pressure to resolve the stalemate. Captain Norton maintains everyone ''gets along fine.''

Norton admits that the ''Canadian lighthouse has been a godsend to all of us. We've used it more than they have. And the keepers have been my very best friends. I get along just great with 'em. I take them milk, mail, and furniture in the summer. I furnished them with a rowboat - it's rough all around the island. As a matter of fact, I don't go through customs out there, and they (the keepers) don't even pay duty on the TVs or furniture I bring them until they come into Canada as secondhand material.

''If they'd (all) just let us alone I think we could settle it,'' he says.

There have been several international attempts to resolve the dispute, but none so far has been successful. The current arbitration over a maritime boundary in the Gulf of Maine, now before a chamber of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, actually excludes Machias Seal Island from the negotiation.

Robert Smith of the Office of the Geographer in the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research says resolution of the conflict ''has been on the back burner. We're not addressing it at this time. And the negotiation over the maritime boundary in the Gulf of Maine does not (affect) Machias Seal Island. We're only looking at the line (15 to 20 miles) seaward of Machias.''

The Canadians would like the maritime boundary line drawn equidistant between the US coastline and the nearest Canadian territory - which in this case is Grand Manan Island.

The United States would like to see an equitable line drawn through Georges Basin that would share with Canada the rich fishing and petroleum resources of Georges Bank.

''Once a decision is made by the (International) court (of Justice) on the maritime boundary,'' says a specialist in maritime law, ''it will be easier to reach an agreement and decision on the fisheries and possibly work out a deal (on Machias Seal Island).''

Captain Norton, however, says that ''if they allow Canada to take over Machias, the people in Washington County - we're all fishermen - would starve. It's bad enough here as it is.''

Until the Machias Seal Island dispute is settled, Captain Norton says he plans to ''continue as I've done for 40 years'' - taking groups out to the island beginning June 1 through mid-August.

In the meantime, he says he is going to ''get my equipment in order. You don't have boats and just get in 'em and sail into the sunset. It isn't that way. I get my boats in just as good condition as I can.''

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