Fishermen: folks who make farmers look sane. Putting things on an international boundary, where stereotypes and bitterness can take root, just spices things up more. Well, hopefully nobody dies.
Canada is one wrong move away from a border war with the United States—if you believe a group of boiling-mad Maine lobstermen. Unfathomable as armed conflict between Canada and the United States seems, if it’s going to happen, it will be in the ocean between Maine and New Brunswick, where two tiny, treeless islands—North Rock and Machias Seal—are the last remaining disputed lands between the two countries.
The islands have no obvious value. They aren’t strategically located for military purposes and there are no natural resources to be mined. In fact, the islands’ primary residents are 5,800 pairs of nesting puffins. However, the waters around the islands, known by locals as “the grey zone,” because both Canada and the U.S. claim that part of the ocean, contain a lucrative lobster fishery.
The conflict bubbles to the surface every few years, when a bellicose lobsterman on one side or the other gets quoted in the press and sets the other side off. But things are different this year. Due to the high price of lobster, new lobstermen have entered the fray, and they are ignoring unwritten rules that have kept the conflict on a low simmer since 1783. Most of the American lobstermen are from the Maine coast bordering the grey zone, and most of the Canadians are from Grand Manan Island. Both sides admit they have a few hotheads they keep an eye on, but the new lobstermen aren’t from either community, so there is no one to talk them out of rocking the boat.
“Somebody is going to get killed. We’ve had bad years in the past and got lucky, but this is the worst year I’ve ever seen,” says American John Drouin, chair of the Maine Lobster Zone Council district in charge of the grey zone. Drouin fears things are even more dangerous than they were eight years ago, when Maine lobsterman Patrick Feeney had his thumb ripped off. It got caught as he was trying to free his equipment while jostling with a Canadian for territory. Laurence Cook, chair of the Grand Manan Fishermen’s Association’s committee in charge of the grey zone, echoes Drouin’s sentiment. “You can work with some people, but there are assholes on both sides of the border who take things too far,” says Cook, who received a death threat in 2002.
As of the end of June, lobster prices in the Maritimes were at about $5.50 a pound, up from about $4 at the same time last year. The high price of lobster is encouraging non-locals to fish in the area, including reviled “company boats” from Nova Scotia that both lobstermen from New Brunswick and Maine say are aggressive and dangerous. Unlike most boats owned and operated by the same person, company boat operators often come from farther afield, so they don’t know the surrounding waters, and their behaviour is less likely to be tempered by the need to work alongside someone in future years.
The Maine Department of Marine Resources say it regularly patrols the area, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada insists Canadian agencies enforce rule violations—the number of traps, the size of lobsters—by Canadian boats, but local lobstermen on both sides feel the other side regularly breaks the law without any consequences.
Canadian fishermen set lobster traps in the grey zone from July to November. The Americans have a much longer season. Drouin, who has been fishing lobster off the coast of Maine for 37 years, is fed up with what he sees as reckless and unpunished lawbreaking. “Canadians are like Vikings. They’ll rape and pillage and not give a s–t, because they can still go home [after their short season],” says Drouin.
Sunday, July 26, 2015