FREDERICTON – A tiny island between New Brunswick and Maine is the subject of renewed calls from both sides of the border to settle a territorial dispute once and for all.
Machias Seal Island is a flat, treeless piece of rock located about 19 kilometres south of Grand Manan Island and 16 kilometres west of the Maine coast at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy.
The island is a sanctuary for many kinds of seabirds including the Atlantic Puffin and draws visitors from around the world to observe them in the summer.
There are no permanent human residents on the island, just pairs of lightkeepers who spend 28 days at a time maintaining a lighthouse operated by the Canadian Coast Guard. The original lighthouse was built by the British in 1832, and a lighthouse has been maintained there ever since.
So why would anyone even care which country gets title to Machias Seal Island?
The answer lies in the 720 square kilometres of water around the island in what’s called a grey zone. Lobster fishermen from both Canada and the U.S. fish these waters.
“The fishing community on Grand Manan is permitted to fish there on an open-end basis and it’s our way of laying our claim to this water that is part of the Machias Seal Island dispute,” said MP John Williamson, who represents the riding of New Brunswick-Southwest.
Williamson said the island is considered to be in his riding.
“I think our claim is sound and is legitimate, but at the end of the day it’s going to come down to the minister in this country and the administration in Washington to settle it,” he said.
“I think it is in the interests of both of our countries to do that.”
That feeling is echoed by Stephen Kelly, a professor at the Center for Canadian Studies at Duke University and a retired American diplomat who has served in Canada.
“It just strikes me if we have this opportunity to remove a potential irritant going forward, why don’t we take it?” Kelly said in an interview from his office in Durham, N.C.
Kelly put his thoughts in a commentary for The New York Times last month, which he said he was prompted to write after seeing territorial disputes that have erupted between Japan and China over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.
He said while the situation between Canada and the United States is much different, land disputes are better settled.
“What if some valuable resource is discovered in the grey zone around Machias Seal Island? What if some other contingency that we can’t imagine now of strategic importance comes along?” he asked.
“Wouldn’t we feel silly that we didn’t take the opportunity to resolve this when the stakes were relatively low.”
For Ralph Eldridge, a Canadian who has been a lightkeeper on the island for the last 16 years, the question of who owns Machias Seal Island is a “non-issue,” something that is never a question from the visitors who travel to the island each summer.
And Eldridge said he doesn’t have to produce his passport to go there.
“But neither does someone from the United States or China or Japan or Spain have to when they come to the island,” he said.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade said ownership of the island and surrounding waters is clear as far as Canada is concerned: they are Canadian.
“Canada’s sovereignty over Machias Seal Island and sovereign jurisdiction over the 210 square nautical mile surrounding waters is strongly founded in international law,” Barbara Harvey said in a statement.