OTTAWA — Canadians often boast that their 5,525-mile boundary with the United States is the longest undefended border in the world. But tempers have frayed on at least one small stretch.
Machias Seal Island is a 20-acre, treeless island teeming with puffins, razorbills, terns, eiders and other seabirds, making it a prime destination for birdwatchers. Canada and the United States both claim sovereignty over the island, which is about 10 miles off the coast of Maine, and the surrounding 277-square-mile Gray Zone, where fishermen from both countries compete over valuable lobster grounds.
In late June and early July, Canadian fishermen said, U.S. Border Patrol agents in speedboats intercepted Canadian lobster boats in the Gray Zone.
“I have no idea where they came from,” said Laurence Cook, a lobsterman and representative of the Fishermen’s Association from nearby Grand Manan Island. “We’ve never seen U.S. Border Patrol in the Gray Zone before.”
Cook said at least 10 Canadian boats were stopped and their crews interrogated about whether they were carrying drugs and illegal immigrants.
The incident comes at a low point in U.S.-Canadian relations. The United States in May slapped tariffs on imports of Canadian steel and aluminum, prompting retaliation from Canada on the same metals and other U.S. exports. President Trump has lashed out at Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, calling him “dishonest and weak.”
The two countries are also in the midst of tense negotiations over the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, that Trump has called “the worst trade deal ever made.”
Canada’s foreign ministry said in a statement that it is investigating the incidents, which it said “occurred in Canadian waters.”
“Canada’s sovereignty over Machias Seal Island and the surrounding waters is long-standing and has a strong foundation in international law,” the statement said.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection said U.S. Border Patrol agents — who are a part of Customs and Border Protection — were simply conducting “regular patrol operations” to enforce immigration and other U.S. laws in “the jurisdictional waters of the United States.” The agency said it boards Canadian vessels only with consent.
The State Department maintained in a statement that Machias Seal Island belongs to the United States and has since 1783.
The dispute dates to the signing of the Treaty of Paris between Britain and the newly independent United States. The United States was granted all islands within “20 leagues” of the Maine shore except for the islands that were owned by the British colony of Nova Scotia, which later became part of Canada. The two sides have differed ever since over whether Machias Seal Island was historically part of Nova Scotia.
When Washington and Ottawa went to the World Court to settle the boundary differences over the adjacent fishing grounds of Georges Bank in the 1980s, they deliberately left out Machias Seal Island and the Gray Zone.
The British first erected a lighthouse on the island in 1832, and Canada inherited it when it became a country in 1867. Even though the lighthouse is now automated, Canada employs lighthouse keepers on site to maintain its sovereignty claim.
There are four boundary disputes along the countries’ border, but the fight over Machias Seal Island is the “only one that actually involves sovereignty over a piece of territory,” said Stephen Kelly, a retired U.S. diplomat and a research scholar on boundary issues at Duke University. The other disputes are squabbles over marine boundaries.
Both countries insist the waters in the Gray Zone are rightfully theirs, so for years there has been an arrangement whereby each country imposes its fishing rules on its own vessels. That means Coast Guard and fisheries vessels from the United States and Canada do not impose their rules on boats from the other country.
Kelly, who has a summer home on the Maine coast, said the recent presence of U.S. Border Patrol in the Gray Zone was unusual.
“I don’t know what they were doing out there. It’s hardly a well-known smuggling path,” he said.
Kelly said there are occasionally disputes between lobstermen in the zone because there are different rules for the fishing season and the size of lobsters, for example. “The Mainers have to throw back lobsters that are too small or too big,” he said. “The Canadians don’t have a limit on the big lobsters.”
While there are occasional tensions between lobstermen, the two countries have developed cordial relations over the birdwatching trade. There is a division of the business between a U.S. boat that sails out of Cutler, Me., and a Canadian boat that makes its port on Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick.
At the height of the season, which runs from late May to mid-August, each boat takes a maximum of 15 tourists for a daily five-hour trip to the island, which is staffed by the Canadian Wildlife Service and researchers from the University of New Brunswick. Although the Canadians control the island, they do not ask visitors from the U.S. boat for identification when they disembark.
“We’ve been colleagues and friends for many years,” said Capt. Andrew Patterson, who runs Bold Coast Charters out of Cutler. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years.”
Patterson said he and his Grand Manan rival work cooperatively with Canadian wildlife officials who man the island to protect the seabirds. “It’s a U.S. island, but we let Canada use it and pay the bills,” he joked.
Patterson noted the latest incident occurred just after the G-7 summit in Quebec where Trump was “kind of rude with the Canadian prime minister.” Since that time, there have been no other incidents.
Yet he worries tensions could be raised if there is ever more than lobster and birdwatching at stake. “God forbid if oil or natural gas were ever found here,” he said.