CUTLER, Maine — The disputed “gray zone” around Machias Seal Island has become a bone of contention again for Maine lobster fishermen who set traps in the region.
Canadian fishermen also ply the disputed waters, and there are more of them this year, which does not sit well with Down East lobstermen.
Maine officials also have received a few complaints about fishing in the area, although the chief of the Marine Patrol Bureau downplayed their significance.
Canada operates a lighthouse on the island. However, both countries claim the island, said Col. Joe Fessenden, head of Maine’s Marine Patrol. Under a written agreement between the two countries, Canadian fisherman can work in the area under the laws and regulations of their country, and Maine fishermen can work under applicable state laws and regulations, Fessenden explained Thursday.
Machias Seal Island, about 20 acres, is located about 12 miles off the coast of Cutler. The “gray zone” encompasses about 70 square miles around the island.
Two fishermen who set traps in the region say there are more Canadians working the waters this year.
About 20 Canadian boats fished in the area last year, but this season there are more like 40-50, John Drouin, a Cutler lobsterman, said Tuesday. “There’s more this year than there has been in the past,” said Drouin. “We don’t understand why.”
About 20-25 boats from Cutler work in the area, he said, although others from Eastport to Jonesport also set traps in the gray zone — about 40 in all, he estimated.
“It’s been a difficult year already,” Jeff Davis, a Machiasport fisherman who also sets traps near the island, said recently. “It’s probably just going to get worse.”
Davis estimated that about 40-45 Canadian boats are working in the region — too many. “It’s overfishing.”
“There’s been a few (altercations),” said Davis. “Nothing serious.”
Drouin was not aware of any conflicts between fishermen, but there have been instances of tangled gear, he said. Some of the Canadian fishermen set traps in the fog, he said. “They don’t seem to care.”
Fessenden downplayed any brouhaha caused by the Canadian fishermen. “We’ve been in contact with their enforcement people,” he said Wednesday, and have been assured that there has been no increase in the number of permits issued to allow Canadians to fish in the disputed waters. Canadian lobstermen have been using existing permits to fish in the region “because there’s lobsters there,” said Fessenden.
“These Canadian fishermen have to comply with Canadian laws and rules in that zone,” said Fessenden. “They’re pretty strictly enforced,” he added, by Canadian authorities, who did not respond to a request for comment from the Bangor Daily News.
Fessenden acknowledged that the waters long have been disputed. “Most fishermen in that area try to get along and try to respect each other’s right to make a living, I think, in general.”
The Marine Patrol has received a few complaints — “three or less,” said Fessenden — of lobster traps being stolen or molested (hauling traps that belong to another fisherman). The complaints were received in recent weeks and were reported by fishermen in Cutler and other nearby communities. Extra patrols were initiated in the region, and fishing boats were inspected, but authorities ascertained no violations. “Everything appears to be OK,” said Fessenden.
Canadian laws and regulations do not exercise good management over the region, argued Drouin. “We’re trying to manage the resource.”
Under Maine laws and regulations, fishermen return brood stock to the water if they are caught in traps, but Canadian laws and regulations allow their fishermen to keep those same lobsters, pointed out Drouin. “It’s kind of a bitter pill to swallow,” he said.
Drouin also argued that Canadian fishermen are competing directly with those from Down East, suggesting the Canadian-caught lobsters make their way into U.S. markets.
Unlike Maine, Canada has a set lobster season that goes from November to June. However, Canada allows fishing in the “gray zone” outside of the normal season.
“It’s gravy for the Canadian fishermen,” said Drouin.
“It’s only hurting Americans,” he added.
Most of the Canadian boats are from Nova Scotia, said Davis. They stay about a week at a time and then go home, keeping their boats at Grand Manan Island, where they sell their catch.
“It’s already a circus out there already,” said Davis. “It’s going to be an interesting year.”
Fessenden referred to an incident in which a Canadian fishing boat struck a rock near Jonesport and had to be assisted by the Coast Guard last week. “A boat like that that’s gone beyond the gray zone … they’re not supposed to be there,” he said. “That’s why it’s being investigated,” he added, by Coast Guard and other federal authorities.
There were reports the Canadian fisherman fell asleep.”That’s what the story is,” acknowledged Fessenden.