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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.

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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.

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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.