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Vol. 1, No. 2
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Spring 1997

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GOMCME LogoGulf of Maine Council on the Marine
Environment

Machias Seal Island

US and Canada collaborate on bird sanctuary management despite sovereignty dispute

Machias Seal Island -- Canada and the US disagree on which country owns Machias Seal Island, a small, rocky mound at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy, famous for its Atlantic puffin colony.

But the two countries do agree on the importance of protecting the seabirds that spend summers breeding and raising their young on the ten-acre (four-hectare) migratory bird sanctuary.

The international boundary that cuts through Passamaquoddy Bay separating Maine and New Brunswick stops 40 nautical miles (74 kilometers) from shore -- well short of Machias Seal Island, which is about 10 miles (16 kilometers) southeast of Cutler, Maine, and about 12 miles (19 kilometers) southwest of New Brunswick's Grand Manan island,

The US dates its sovereignty claim to a 1783 peace treaty with Great Britain. Canada's claims reach back to 1621. The fact that Canada has manned a lighthouse on the island since 1832, and that the Canadian Wildlife Service established the island as a migratory bird sanctuary in 1944 are further proof of its ownership, that country asserts.

"There are no current efforts to seek mediation or arbitration by a third party," said Bruce Ehrnman, US Consul General in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

According to Ehrnman, in 1984 the International Court of Justice at the Hague "established the maritime boundary within most of the Gulf of Maine, but the sovereignty of Machias Seal Island was beyond the scope of issues the United States and Canada placed before the court."

Seabird populations healthy after decades of struggle

The island is the summer home of several seabird species, many of whose populations are only now recovering following their near decimation in the nineteenth century. The birds were killed for their feathers, which were used to make hats, and their eggs were harvested for food.

But now, the island hosts what is probably the largest colony of Arctic terns on the North American East Coast, with approximately 2,500 nesting pairs recorded at last count, according to Al Smith of the Canadian Wildlife Service's (CWS) Habitat Program. The island also hosts the southern-most sizable colony of Atlantic puffins, consisting of about 1,000 nesting pairs, he added.

Other birds who spend summers on the island are the common tern, roseate tern, razor-billed auk, common eider, common murre, and Leach's storm petrel. All of the birds' populations are stable, if not growing, said Smith.

"The US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Environment Canada basically are working together to protect the nesting birds on an island that both of our countries claim," said George Haas, migratory bird coordinator for USFWS' northeast region. Colin MacKinnon, CWS wildlife biologist emphasized that his agency manages the sanctuary with cooperation from USFWS.

That management includes regulating visits from up to 1,800 bird watchers, photographers, and others each year, who pay charter boat captains $50 a head for the opportunity to observe the birds at close range.

"Through time, it's been apparent that if we can limit visitation and also control the traffic, we can provide a quality experience for ecotourists to view a species close at hand that they can't in any other part of Maine or Canada, and at the same time have no apparent impact on the [bird] population," Haas said.

Before any restrictions were in place, human visitation was taking a toll on the birds, noted Brian Benedict, assistant refuge manager at the US's Petit Manan National Wildlife Refuge.

Unclaimed islands off the coast of Maine normally fall under the jurisdiction of the state's Bureau of Public Lands. But Benedict said that under a memorandum of understanding between Maine's Depart-ment of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and USFWS, the island now falls under the National Wildlife Refuge Administration Act, which provides broader protective measures for wildlife than Maine's Migratory Bird Act.

Two US captains and one Canadian captain ferry visitors out to the island in accordance with restrictions agreed upon by US and Canadian wildlife agencies. A CWS summer warden stays there during peak nesting times.

Only 30 people are allowed to land on the island each day in groups of 13 or fewer. Visitors are limited to a designated pathway and must observe the birds from blinds during their maximum three-hour stay.

Smith said the dispute over ownership of the island has not interfered with day-to-day wildlife management.

Countries seem to agree to disagree on sovereignty

In an age of technology and precision, the vagueness of the boundary between Maine and New Brunswick seems anachronistic. But the lack of resolution appears to be due to the fact that nothing has yet prompted either side to press the issue.

According to Benedict, any escalation of the sovereignty debate is more likely to occur over fishing or mineral rights than over wildlife resource issues.

Captain Andrew Patterson of Cutler, Maine, agreed. Operator of the Bold Coast Charter Company, which has brought visitors to the island for nine years, Patterson said he believes the island "should be US territory," although he commended the Canadian Wildlife Service for its commitment to wildlife management there.

But according to MacKinnon, the US prohibits human visitors to many US islands frequented by migratory birds. He asserted that if Machias Seal Island were not Canadian, Patterson's "business would probably suffer."

But Patterson, who also works as a commercial fisherman, observed, "It's an interesting irony -- the Canadians claim the island and have presence there, and our government permits that. But if you travel around the island, the waters are peppered with US fishermen's lobster buoys. There are no Canadian fishermen out there at all. You'd think they'd also claim the waters around the island."

And then there's Captain Barna Norton, a Jonesport, Maine resident who claims to own the island himself.

Norton has ferried bird watchers from Jonesport, Maine to Machias Seal since 1940, and maintains that his great grandfather laid claim to it during the Civil War. Excepting a few incidents in the 1970s when, according to Norton, Canadian officials tried to stop him from landing on the island, relations have been smooth.

Although Norton makes occasional ceremonial trips to the island to officially restate his claim, he doesn't object to the Canadian Wildlife Service's staff being there. "We have to look out for it or it will be destroyed," he said.

"I agree in principal with the concept of controlling access to protect the seabirds," assented Patterson, but he complained that regulation of the island by two governments creates a double dose of red tape. But MacKinnon said CWS asked USFWS to step in to help resolve disagreements among the charter operators over the landings schedule.

While describing the relationship between Canadian officials and the US charter boat captains as "fairly respectful and personable," MacKinnon said they have, on occasion, been "heated." But, he said, "Everybody still wants the protect the birds, ultimately, despite all of the other issues."

The sovereignty issue hasn't affected Canadian Captain Peter Wilcox's tour business, but he's weary of it, nevertheless. Also a lobsterman, Wilcox has brought visitors to the island for 11 years on his own. Before that, he made the trips with his father, who operated tours for 30 years.

"I'm tired of it," Wilcox said of the ownership dispute. "People ask whose it is, and I say, ‘whose flag is flying?' and leave it at that. It's a dead issue that will never be resolved."