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article imageOp-Ed: Canada and US dispute ownership of small rocky island

By Ken Hanly     Dec 25, 2012 in World
Machias Seal Island is a tiny rock island 16 kilometres from the coast of the US state of Maine and 19 kilometers south of Grand Manan Island just off the coast of the Canadian province of New Brunswick. The island is claimed by both Canada and the US.
Machias Seal Island has an area of just 8 hectares or about 20 acres. The island is a sanctuary for many seabirds including the Atlantic Puffin seen in the appended video. Visitors from around the world come to view the birds during the summer.
There are no permanent residents of the island although there are lighthouse keepers who come in pairs and stay four weeks at a time. The lighthouse is operated by the Canadian Coast Guard. The original lighthouse was built by the British in 1832. There has been a lighthouse maintained ever since. Many think that the presence of the lighthouse will give Canada a legitimate claim to the island. The United States has never had a presence on the island except in 1918 during the First World War when a small detachment of marines was posted to the island with Canadian agreement.
However in the past private citizens in Maine have claimed ownership of the island. There is a tour boat operator from Cutler Maine, who brings tourists to the island in the summer to view the birds. While there has been no oil or mineral resources discovered in the area, there is a large 720 square kilometres around the island called a grey zone. Lobster fishermen from both Canada and the US fish this area.
MP for New Brunswick Southwest , John Williamson said:"The fishing community on Grand Manan is permitted to fish there on an open-end basis and it's our way of laying our claim to this water that is part of the Machias Seal Island dispute.I think our claim is sound and is legitimate, but at the end of the day it's going to come down to the minister in this country and the administration in Washington to settle it. I think it is in the interests of both of our countries to do that."
Unfortunately an earlier decision of a joint commission in 1817 did not decide the ownership of Machias Sea Island even though it did decide that of other islands in the area including Moose, Dudley, and Fredericks Islands that are now owned by the US and also Grand Manan island that now belongs to Canada.
Stephen Kelly of Duke University and a retired US diplomat thinks that it would be a good idea to resolve the issue."It just strikes me if we have this opportunity to remove a potential irritant going forward, why don't we take it. What if some valuable resource is discovered in the grey zone around Machias Seal Island? What if some other contingency that we can't imagine now of strategic importance comes along?Wouldn't we feel silly that we didn't take the opportunity to resolve this when the stakes were relatively low."
Ralph Edlridge, who has been a light-keeper on the island for 16 years, thought ownership was a non-issue. Neither he nor anyone else who comes to visit the island has to worry about showing a passport whether they come from Maine, Canada, China, or Spain he said. Barbara Harvey a spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and International Trade said that as far as Canada is concerned the island is Canadian: "Canada's sovereignty over Machias Seal Island and sovereign jurisdiction over the 210 square nautical mile surrounding waters is strongly founded in international law." Some residents of Maine may not agree.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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