According to Canadian publication The Star, U.S. Border Patrol agents have questioned the crews of at least 10 Canadian fishing boats from New Brunswick while they were fishing in disputed waters around Machias Seal Island over the past two weeks.
Laurence Cook, chairman of the advisory board for Lobster Fishing Area 38, said Wednesday that some Canadian vessels were boarded by American agents who asked about possible illegal immigrants.
“There’s been a bit of a misunderstanding there somewhere,” Cook said in an interview. “They’re in international waters, so border patrol shouldn’t be boarding Canadian vessels.”
Machias Seal Island sits just east of Maine and southwest of Grand Manan Island, and the surrounding waters – known as the Grey Area – have been in dispute since the 1700s.
Though Canadians and Americans have fished the waters peacefully, an increase in lucrative lobster catches over the past decade reportedly has raised tensions in the area.
“Neither country accepts that there is a Grey Zone,” said Stephen Kelly, a research scholar at Duke University in Durham, N.C., and a former American diplomat who served in Canada. “That’s created more tension in the area over the last decade.”
Kelly said both countries have done very little to assert their claims.
“Sometimes doing nothing is better,” he said. “But in this case, just because it looks like it’s not broken can be very deceiving — especially with our new president in the United States. The last thing Canada wants is for Donald Trump to seize on this as an example of U.S. sovereignty being challenged.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection referred inquiries to the U.S. State Department, according to The Star. The State Department did not respond to an interview request.
Global Affairs Canada spokesman John Babcock said the government is looking into the matter.
“Canada’s sovereignty over the Machias Seal Island and the surrounding waters is long-standing and has a strong foundation in international law,” Babcock said.
“Until the matter of the boundary is resolved, we will continue to take practical steps with the U.S. to ensure that the area is well-managed. Canada and the U.S. have a long history of co-operation which ensures that fishing in this area is well-managed and safe for both countries.”
The Grand Manan Fishermen’s Association issued a statement that used much the same language. As well, the group suggested the actions of the U.S. agents may have been routine.
“We understand that a few Grand Manan fishermen were approached by the United State Border Services during the month of June. Our understanding is that this was a part of a regular exercise being conducted along the U.S. marine border.”