Tensions Flare in U.S.-Canada Border Dispute Over Island


When it comes to border disputes between the United States and its neighbors, one country springs to mind: Mexico.

After all, the vast majority of immigration problems and security concerns are coming from south of the border. That area has received significant attention in the past few months, as thousands of asylum seekers from Latin America have poured toward U.S. soil.

Surprisingly, however, tensions are also flaring along the U.S.-Canada border, but the issue doesn’t involve illegal immigration.

A small, nearly uninhabited island off the coast of Maine has become the site of a minor standoff between the two countries, and it appears to be escalating.

“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,” The Washington Post reported.

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Here’s the big problem: “Canada and the United States both claim sovereignty over the island,” the newspaper continued.

Why do two major nations care about an almost desolate island? The answer is fishing grounds. Valuable lobsters are found in a nearly 300-square-mile area near the island called “the Gray Zone,” and commercial fishermen are now finding themselves at the center of the dispute.

“In late June and early July, Canadian fishermen said, U.S. Border Patrol agents in speedboats intercepted Canadian lobster boats in the Gray Zone,” explained the Post.

“We’ve never seen U.S. Border Patrol in the Gray Zone before,” Canadian lobsterman Laurence Cook told the paper. “I have no idea where they came from.”

Can this island dispute hurt U.S.-Canada relations?

Stephen Kelly, a retired diplomat and expert on boundary issues at Duke University, told the Post the move was unusual.

“I don’t know what they were doing out there. It’s hardly a well-known smuggling path,” he said.

It is possible that the ramped-up patrols are part of the ongoing spat between U.S. President Donald Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over trade tariffs. Whether the appearance of Border Patrol boats is part of a ploy to put pressure on Canada during upcoming NAFTA re-negotiations is unknown, but not impossible.

One things is clear: The patrols aren’t doing much to smooth over the dispute over Machias Seal Island.

“The State Department maintained in a statement that Machias Seal Island belongs to the United States and has since 1783,” reported the Post.

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Our northern neighbors disagree. “Canada’s sovereignty over Machias Seal Island and the surrounding waters is long-standing and has a strong foundation in international law,” declared a statement from Canada’s foreign ministry.

The issue goes all the way back to the founding of the United States. After the colonies became independent, the Treaty of Paris signed by Britain gave Americans all islands off Maine’s shore, except for those owned by Nova Scotia, a British colony at the time.

Whether Machias Seal Island belonged to Nova Scotia was never settled, however. Nova Scotia was one of the four provinces that formed the nation of Canada in 1867.

It’s worth noting that full-scale wars have been fought over island territories in the past. Just 36 years ago, for instance, the Falklands War between Argentina and Britain led to multiple warships being sunk and close to a 1,000 being killed — all over an island dispute.

While it is extremely unlikely that anything even remotely similar would happen between Canada and the United States in our lifetime, the possibility is certainly on the minds of area residents.

“God forbid if oil or natural gas were ever found here,” Capt. Andrew Patterson, a charter boat operator, told the Post.

Canada and the United States have been close friends for many decades, and shed blood together on the beaches of Normandy and in the War on Terror.

Border disagreements like this one can hopefully be settled amicably, but it will be interesting to see how this situation unfolds.

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Benjamin Arie is an independent journalist and writer. He has personally covered everything ranging from local crime to the U.S. president as a reporter in Michigan before focusing on national politics. Ben frequently travels to Latin America and has spent years living in Mexico.