As tensions rise between the United States and Canada, a new clash has surfaced in the cool waters off the northeast tip of Maine, which are rich with lobster, scallops and cod.
For more than a decade, American and Canadian fishermen largely have had a friendly but competitive relationship in an oval-shaped region of the Bay of Fundy known as the grey zone. But this summer that camaraderie has been threatened, Canadian fishermen claim, as officers with the U.S. Border Patrol have started to wade into the area, pull up aside their vessels and ask about their citizenship.
“We don’t want this to be a great international incident, but it’s kind of curious,” said Laurence Cook, the chairman of the lobster committee at the Grand Manan Fishermen’s Association in New Brunswick. “They say it’s routine patrolling, but it is the first routine patrolling in 25 years.”
At least 10 Canadian fishing boats have been stopped by U.S. immigration authorities within the past two weeks, Cook said, the latest escalation in a more than 300-year disagreement between the countries in the disputed waters off Machias Seal Island. Both countries claim the island, which is about 10 miles off Maine and home to two full-time residents (both Canadian), puffins, rocks and not much else, and say they have the right to patrol its boundaries.
The clash, which has caught the attention of Canadian leaders, has taken on added significance, coming just weeks after President Donald Trump took parting shots at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau when he left the Group of 7 summit meeting in Quebec.
Canada’s Foreign Affairs Department said that it had heard about two stops in late June involving Border Patrol officers and had asked the U.S. government for an explanation.
“Canada continues to investigate these incidents that occurred in Canadian waters,” said John Babcock, a spokesman for Global Affairs Canada. “Canada’s sovereignty over the Machias Seal Island and the surrounding waters is long-standing and has a strong foundation in international law.”
The State Department did not respond to a request for comment. The Border Patrol described the encounters in the Atlantic as “regular patrol operations to enforce immigration laws.”
“The U.S. Border Patrol does not board Canadian vessels in the grey zone without consent or probable cause, and agents only conduct interviews as a vessel runs parallel to it,” said Stephanie Malin, a spokeswoman for Customs and Border Protection, which operates the border agency.
Cook said that he heard from boat captains that the Border Patrol had searched at least two Canadian vessels in June. No one was arrested and nothing was confiscated, he said.
“There is no illegal immigration going on there,” he said. “It seems silly.”
While the bulk of the Border Patrol’s operations focus on the United States’ southern border, the agency maintains a modest presence near the northern border with Canada. One of its smallest outposts is in Houlton, Maine, the division assigned to patrolling the state’s boundaries with Quebec and New Brunswick, conducting checkpoints on highways and cruising the coastline.
The region is not exactly a hotbed of activity for the Border Patrol. Of the 310,500 apprehensions the agency conducted from fall 2016 to fall 2017, only 30 were made by officers in the Houlton office. But those officers have been spotted on boats at a higher rate this summer, fishermen said.
“I wouldn’t call it unprecedented or say that the fishermen were harassed,” said John Drouin, 53, a member of the Maine Lobster Advisory Council who lives in the coastal town of Cutler, about 10 miles from Machias Seal Island. “They have had a strong presence in the area for a good solid month. It wasn’t just in the grey zone.”
Drouin said he was stopped about two weeks ago, when a roughly 20-foot-long Border Patrol boat pulled beside him in the Cutler Harbor. The agents did not board his boat.
“The patrol approach them just as they do me,” Drouin, who catches tens of thousands of pounds of lobster annually, said about his fellow fishermen from Canada. “They ask what your citizenship is and ask for your name and stuff.”
Chris Mills, a former lightkeeper in the Canadian Coast Guard, said he never saw a Border Patrol boat or a U.S. military vessel pass by when he worked at the Machias Seal Island Lighthouse in 1991 and 1992. He said he found the Border Patrol operation “entirely farcical.”
“It’s just a small part of a huge sea change in the way Canada is interacting with the U.S. and vice versa, especially with the trade issue,” Mills said. “It will have to be handled carefully by Canada and the States because it will just add fuel to the fire.”
To get to the grey zone, fishermen in the United States depart from a port like Cutler, and those in Canada take off from Grand Manan Island in New Brunswick. But once they are in the same waters, it becomes nearly impossible to determine at a glance whether the fishing boats are Canadian or American.
Drouin said he believes Canadians are overreacting to the Border Patrol stops. “If we had a single boundary line and weren’t intermingling, it would be a lot simpler,” he said.
He thinks something else is at play: competition.
For hundreds of years, lobstermen in the United States have sailed the chilly waters off New England during the summer, lowering and raising traps along the ocean floor. Their counterparts in Canada mostly stayed off in the distance, setting cages during the winter around the coast of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.
That changed in 2002. Fishermen from Grand Manan Island got approval from the Canadian government to fish year-round in the grey zone, setting up direct competition with Mainers. It is the only lobster region in Canada near the shore that remains open all year. Now, about 50 Canadians and 50 Americans fish the area together.
As Canada’s presence increased in the area, Drouin said, so did Canadian fishing patrol boats, watching Americans operate their lobster traps. Planes began flying overhead, taking pictures of American boats.
“If the Canadians want to use the term harass, they have been harassing us for years,” Drouin said. “They fly over the top of all the boats in the area, sometimes fairly close, sometimes within 50 feet. It scares the crap out of you.”