Along the border of the Canadian province of New Brunswick and the American state of Maine sits a small rocky island caught between the two countries.
An almost endless number of headlines have been made in recent months over the (at times heated) conflict between Japan and China over the ownership of a small group of islands in the East China Sea.
Due to the nature of islands, often found along inexact maritime boundaries, ownership disputes are not uncommon – but few of them tend to make headlines. A recent article has shone a spotlight on one of these lesser-known tales, involving a lighthouse isle along the Canada/USA border.
Found at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy, Machias Seal Island is an unassuming rocky outcropping of less than 20 acres, with only a lighthouse tower and outbuildings raised above its flat, barren surface. This modest appearance may be why the island was overlooked during the latter part of the 18th century, when Britain and the newly-formed United States were defining their territorial boundaries. Surprisingly, the intervening centuries have done little to resolve the question of just who owns the island.
While the dispute over Machias Seal Island has remained a friendly one, it has heated up in recent decades. Unlike in the case of Japan and China’s battle over the Diaoyu/Senkaku archipelago, there are no rich offshore oil and gas reserves at stake, however, there is a vibrant lobster fishing industry in the indeterminate “grey zone” of the surrounding waters.
“It’s very congested,” said the head of local fisherman’s association. “It’s a very hard area to fish. The Americans think it’s theirs; the Canadians think it’s theirs, and nobody gets along all that well.”
Canada has, thus far, maintained the upper hand in the conflict – despite an elimination of full-time staff from lighthouses on the East Coast to cut costs, the building on Machias Seal Island bears the distinction of being the sole remaining non-automatic lighthouse in the region, a contiguous occupation that stretches back two centuries.
The Department of Foreign Affairs has been willing to foot the Coast Guard’s bill for the live-in staff, giving only the explanation that it is for “sovereignty purposes”.
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