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