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

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

By Josh AllenContributor / April 14, 2008

Cutler, Maine

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."

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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.]

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.