25 december 2012

Who owns Machias Seal Island, a tiny bird sanctuary between Canada and the U.S.?


The Canadian flag flutters in the breeze by the lighthouse at Machias Seal Island. (Photo: The Canadian Press)

The Canadian flag flutters at Machias Seal Island, a seabird sanctuary between New Brunswick and Maine. Yet the tiny bit of land is the subject of a territorial dispute between Canada and the United States.

The flat, treeless piece of rock island is a sanctuary for many kinds of seabirds including the Atlantic Puffin and draws visitors from around the world to observe them in the summer.

There are no permanent human residents on the island, just pairs of light keepers who spend 28 days at a time maintaining a lighthouse operated by the Canadian Coast Guard.

The original lighthouse was built by the British in 1832, and a lighthouse has been maintained there ever since.

The island itself is not much of a problem. What is important though is the 720 square kilometers of water surrounding it. Lobster fishermen from both Canada and the U.S. fish these waters.

Machias Seal Island is a sanctuary for the Atlantic Puffin (Photo: Bobby-Jean MacKinnon)

"I think our claim is sound and is legitimate. I think it is in the interests of both of our countries to [settle the dispute],” says MP John Williamson, who represents the riding of New Brunswick-Southwest. He says the island is considered to be in his riding.

Stephen Kelly, a professor at the Center for Canadian Studies at Duke University and a retired American diplomat who has served in Canada, also believes land disputes are better settled.

"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?" he asked.

"It just strikes me if we have this opportunity to remove a potential irritant going forward, why don't we take it?" Kelly said.|

A spokeswoman for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Barbara Harvey, said Canada's sovereignty over Machias Seal Island and surrounding waters is strongly founded in international law.

Gilda Salomone, with files from the CBC


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