Lobster: U.S.-Canada turf war set to resume

Competing claims over Machias Seal Island may collapse the lobster industry there.

By , Contributor

Aboard the 46-foot "Rebbie's Mistress," John Drouin of Cutler, Maine, will steam southeast from the harbor in town to tend his lobster traps in the cobalt seas near Machias Seal Island – a 110-square-mile patch of the Gulf of Maine known as the "gray zone."

In spring, the fishing is easy. From July to early November, Mr. Drouin and about 35 lobstermen from Maine will crowd the waters beside a fleet of lobster fishermen from Canada, with tensions high because both sides claim they're fishing their own nation's waters.

Because Canada and the United States have never settled ownership of Machias Seal Island, a 19-acre rise of rock, and the maritime boundary south of the Bay of Fundy, the gray zone has become for the past six summers the scene of tangled gear, allegations of vandalism, and mutual concerns that such intense lobstering and differing management regulations will eventually overwhelm the crustaceous population. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly suggested the island had trees.]

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As the seventh summer approaches, neither the US nor Canada shows signs of resolving the dispute at the federal level, leaving local groups of fishermen and regulators to sort things out.

"What if we can't agree?" asks Laurence Cook of the Grand Manan Fishermen's Association (GMFA) on Grand Manan Island in New Brunswick. "I don't think we're going to see a day when [US fishermen] say: 'Let's share things equally.' "

For decades, the fleets of eastern Maine and Canada's Grand Manan Island fished the gray zone quietly, as Canadian regulations closed the area to Canadian fishermen from July to mid-November. The major American seasons in the area are in early summer and fall, though it is open to them year round. Tensions arose in 2002, when the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) enacted a summer lobster season in the gray zone.

The Canadians initiated a summer season to resist increased American fishing in the gray zone and illegal fishing by US boats in the sovereign Canadian waters east of the disputed area, say Mr. Cook and DFO manager Gus van Helvoort. Says Mr. van Helvoort, "If there is an economic asset in the area – and it is the same lobster population in the region, be it US or Canadian waters – then the resource should be accessible to both US and Canadian fishermen."

The seas to the west of the gray zone are sovereign US waters. But Drouin says that due to territorial traditions of fishing and regulations that limit Maine fishermen to setting only portions of their traps in an adjacent (US) area, the US lobstermen who work the gray zone have nowhere else to fish.

Thus, every summer, about 35 boats from Washington County, Maine, and an average of 18 from Grand Manan set as many as 34,000 traps. Gear is set so close that snarls of US and Canadian trawls are a daily occurrence. Last year, one US fishermen reportedly lost his thumb while working to untangle a trawl snarled with Canadian gear.

There have been instances of gear theft and slashing of trawl lines. Annual gear losses to vandalism average $30,000 across the Grand Manan fleet, estimates Melanie Sonnenberg of the GMFA. Both sides admit that the activity occurs.

"They cut my gear, I cut theirs," Cook says. But such allegations are almost impossible to prove in court, says George Lapointe, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

Compounding the problem are worries that the lobster fishery will collapse, which would be devastating to Washington County, Maine's poorest coastal county, and Grand Manan, an island of about 2,500. US and Canadian fishermen criticize the other country's fishery rules.

"Because of the Canadian management practices, they've had a total groundfish collapse off Newfoundland," says Drouin. "I want to leave them to manage my lobster resource?"

Canadian regulations provide no maximum size limit, while Maine fishermen cannot land any lobster with a carapace measuring five inches or more, a requirement that Drouin says protects the breeding population and future lobster generations.

The Canadians point out that, unlike the Americans, they require vessel location and dockside monitoring systems that compile each vessel's daily catch. In addition, Cook says, "we're allowed 375 traps [per license], and they are allowed 800. Put the management plans head to head, there's no comparison."

As of 2005, most of the Gulf of Maine's lobster population was stable, according to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. The commission is conducting another stock assessment, using 2007 data. Drouin claims that his landings for 2007 were down about 39 percent from the previous year

The gray zone exists because vague wording in various treaties dating back to the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which ended the American Revolutionary War, led to US-Canadian disagreement over the boundaries in the Gulf of Maine and the division of Georges Bank, scholars say.

A 1984 settlement by the International Court of Justice settled most of the boundary disputes, but both nations agreed to leave Machias Seal Island out of the arbitration.

One theory is that the Canadian government precipitated the lobster dispute to get the boundary issue resolved.

"Based on subsequent events, it seems that the American counterparts ... could not be drawn into discussions about the boundary itself," says Joan Marshall, a lecturer at McGill University in Montreal who is publishing a book on social changes on Grand Manan.

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