Over the past few years, there has been a lot of talk in the media about this country’s borders with our neighbors. The discussion has almost exclusively focused on our southern boundary with Mexico because we have a cordial relationship with Canada and the border between us is clear and well established — or is it?
The treaty of Paris, signed at the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, set the demarcation line between the new United States and what was then British North America. There was another attempt to define the boundaries in 1794, followed by the Treaty of Ghent in 1815 that settled the War of 1812 and further refined the border.
Other treaties and surveys followed at infrequent intervals over the next century as America and Britain both expanded their interests westward. Each of these agreements served to tweak and settle the boundary to some extent. You would think, with all this attention, that there could not be any disputes between the two countries as to where exactly the border lies, but you’d be wrong.
There are several, and one of these on the east coast goes back to the original Treaty of Paris, signed in 1783. That designated the border as starting from the “north-west angle of Nova Scotia” from there it followed rivers until turning west on the 45th parallel.
That was fine, Nova Scotia was British, anything south of the line was American and there could be no dispute. Except there was; there are several islands lying south west of Nova Scotia in the Gulf of Maine that are clearly south of the designated border. Logically, according to the treaty, they should belong to America but the British disputed this and their reason is based even further back in history.
In the year 1621, King James I gave a land grant to a Scottish nobleman, Sir William Alexander. That grant included what is now New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, and it particularly included “all islands, or seas lying near to, or within six leagues of any part ... of the said coast.” That designation included Grand Manan Island and Machias Seal Island and, as far as the British were concerned, that meant they were part of Nova Scotia and therefore they were British.
America didn’t agree and the argument went on through the War of 1812, during which the British occupied some of coastal Maine. The Treaty of Ghent that ended that war partially ended the dispute when it set up a commission that decided some islands belonged to Maine while others, including Grand Manan Island and other islands in Passamaquoddy Bay, belonged to Britain. That should have settled the matter, but Machias Seal Island, although close to Grand Manan, isn’t in the bay and wasn’t mentioned in the treaty. Its ownership has been in dispute ever since.
The island is far from being a tourist attraction. It is just 20 acres of virtually barren rock with just a little greenery in the center. It’s inhabited by puffins, other sea birds — and by two Canadians. Back in 1832 the British, encouraged by local fishermen and ship owners, built a lighthouse in the center of the island. At first the lighthouse keepers lived there with their families, but today it’s just the two keepers who are ferried out by helicopter. Every lighthouse on Canada’s eastern seaboard is now automatic and doesn’t require human attention but the Canadian government has maintained the keepers on this one island for the past 188 years in order to emphasize their sovereignty.
On the other hand the United States only had a presence on the island for a few short months in 1918 when a detachment of US Marines were stationed there. They were present by agreement with the Canadian government and their task was to protect the lighthouse and surrounding area from any possible raids by German U boats. There are tours from local Maine sea ports to view the nesting birds and some Maine residents have dubious claims to owning the island but the Maine government itself has been known to refer to the island as being Canadian.
In 1944 the island and surrounding ocean was declared a bird and wildlife sanctuary and, in 1979 the International Court of Justice was asked to rule on the boundary in the Gulf of Maine. Unfortunately, when asking for the ruling, the USA and Canada agreed a starting point that is south-west of Machias Seal Island and the international border starts north-west of it, leaving the island in the middle of what locals call the “gray area”. Later, as recently as 1984, there was an agreement to set the boundaries in the area but the island was still left in the “gray area”.
There are no minerals of note on the island and no oil under it so why is there a dispute? The answer is fish, or to be more precise, lobsters. Fishermen from Maine and from Canada dredge these waters for the crustaceans that abound there. The Americans used to enjoy the bulk of the catch because Canadian law forbade fishing in the summer but that has now changed and the number of Canadian boats equals those belonging to the USA. This has led to disputes, stories of stolen catches, overfishing and threats of violence. Recently American border patrols in the area have taken to stopping Canadian fishing boats at sea and searching them for alleged illegal immigrants and Canada is said it is looking into the incidents.
Where will the dispute end? Who can tell? One would have assumed that, with recent political events at home and things that have happened on the international scene, both governments have bigger fish to fry (pun intended).