03 AUG 2018: Machias Island is a tiny outpost about 550 metres long and 250 metres wide, shaped like a tear drop and is entirely treeless. Apart from a lighthouse keeper and a couple of researchers studying the island’s seabird colonies, there are no other inhabitants, and only a little over 1,000 people — mostly avid birdwatchers — visit the rocky outpost each year. However, this is disputed land (and water) claimed by both Canada and the United States.

The lucrative supply of fish and lobster in the waters surrounding the island have historically formed a large part of the dispute over which country can claim ownership of what is known as the “grey zone,” where Canadian and American claims overlap into a territorial dispute.

It’s a dispute that dates back centuries.

Today, Machias Seal Island is a migratory bird sanctuary maintained by the Government of Canada.

The lighthouse keeper on the island gets flown in every few months from the Canadian Coast Guard, which has staffed it for more than 100 years, and only two small tour boats with about 15 people each from Maine and New Brunswick are allowed to arrive each day.

Along with researchers, visitors come to catch a glimpse of the more than 100 types of land and seabirds that stop in at the island as they migrate.

Tensions over who owns the island flared briefly in the 1980s and again in 2012, but the dispute stretches back to the very foundations of British North America.

In 1621, the British Crown granted the lands that make up what is now Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and the Gaspe Peninsula to a Scotsman called Sir William Alexander, the Earl of Stirling.

The problem, though, was those territories had already been claimed by the French as a colony known as Acadia.

In the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, the French handed over the territories that made up Acadia to the British, and in 1783, the Treaty of Peace ended the Revolutionary War between Great Britain and the American colonies.

That 1783 agreement stated that islands within roughly 112 kilometres from the shore of America would belong to the United States

But that treaty also excluded “such islands as now are, or hereafter have been within the limits of the said province of Nova Scotia.”

The Canadian government argues that those terms included Machias Seal Island and that therefore, it is Canadian territory.

The Americans argue the agreement voided prior British – now Canadian – claim to the island, and they get a bit stroppy about it from time to time.

In a statement issued on July 4, the Grand Manan Fishermen’s Association, which represents professional fishermen around southern New Brunswick association said it had received reports of several incidents of fishermen from the Grand Manan area being approached by US border patrol agents while on the water ostensibly looking for illegal immigrants.

“Our understanding is that this was part of a regular exercise being conducted along the US marine border,” the association said in a statement.

They noted that fishermen from both Canada and the United States have shared the grey zone waters for years.

“The association is working (with) the Government of Canada to ensure that our fishermen will be able to continue their fishery in a normal manner.”

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