Machias Seal Island – Coldest War


In the cold coastal waters off Cutler, America’s oldest border skirmish continues apace.

By Jesse Ellison

MAchias Seal Island lies 10 miles off the coast of Maine, a lonely outcrop of rock and brush in a 277-square-mile swath of ocean known to sailors and cartographers as the “grey zone,” an area of rich fishery that the United States and Canada both claim to possess. The Yankee and Canuck fishermen who share these contested waters — and who ostensibly follow the rules of their home countries — haven’t always gotten along well, and tensions tend to rise and fall with the market value of their catches. A few years ago, when lobster prices soared and more people were fishing in the gray zone than ever before, lobsters on both sides accused each other of cutting lines, stealing gear and uttering death threats. A 61-year-old American fisherman warned a Canadian patrol that he was about to ram him. The American side has suffered the worst loss so far: ten years ago, a Mainer had his thumb ripped off while trying to free his traps from the Canadian lines.

A quick history lesson: In 1783, the Treaty of Paris settled the Revolutionary War, but it left a host of questions unanswered about what is now the Maine-New Brunswick border. In 1820, when Maine became a state, its government became intensely interested in defining its border as far north as possible. A cold war – the so-called Aroostook War – ensued, with militia mobilizations and cross-border arrests eventually leading to high-level diplomatic talks. The resulting treaty, signed 175 years ago, determined the current twisted shape of northern Maine and should have eased tensions permanently – except it ignored tiny Machias Seal Island. (and the smaller, adjacent, and even less hospitable North Rock).

Artwork by Gregor Forster c/o

New Brunswickers built a lighthouse on Machias Seal Island in 1832, and today it is still manned year-round by the Canadian Coast Guard. Even though the light is automated, the Canadian government argues that their presence earns them something like international squatter rights. The United States, meanwhile, has long maintained that the delimitation rules of the Treaty of Paris make the island American. And locals are quick to point out that Machias Seal Island is closer to Maine than Canada, by about 2 miles.

Only one American boat, out of Cutler, charters trips to the island. Its captain, Andrew Patterson, began criss-crossing the Gray Zone (or Gray Zone, depending on which side you’re on) 30 years ago, taking visitors to see the thousands of puffins that nest on the treeless slab of rock. . “We just let the Canadians take it,” Patterson’s first mate, Brandon Guerra, jokes with the passengers – though he admits he wouldn’t crack the joke in the presence of Canadians. “I wouldn’t be caught dead,” he said. “I probably wouldn’t come back from the island if I said that there.”

Patterson recalls Barna Norton, who ran a tour boat from Jonesport, putting on a show by planting an American flag on the island every Fourth of July, right in front of a Canadian Coast Guard sign. Although not as theatrical, Patterson gets the feeling. “I strongly believe it’s an American island,” he said, “but that’s obviously not going to be settled. God forbid oil or natural gas was found – something where the money was really involved.

Patriotism aside, Patterson doesn’t care much about the current arrangement. If the border is ever resolved, he worries, the island could become like other puffin sanctuaries, off-limits to visitors. Currently, the Canadian Wildlife Service manages research on the island and allows 15 visitors from the United States and 15 from Canada per day (no passport needed), and everyone seems happy not to rock the boat in the middle of the ongoing territorial dispute. If the claim is settled, Patterson could find itself out of business — not to mention local fishermen on the losing side, at a time when warming waters are pushing the heart of Maine’s lobster fishery further north and closer to the sea. Isle.

“That tension, that dispute, is what gives us that access,” Patterson says. “When people ask me who owns Machias Seal Island and I don’t feel like going in, I just roll my eyes and say, ‘The birds own it. ”

puffin machias seal island

How to land on Machias Seal Island

by Andrew Patterson Bold Coast Charter Company ends its touring schedule in August, as the puffin colony departs for open water once the young puffins have fledged. Reservations for summer 2018 tours begin in January and tend to sell out in the spring. 207-259-4484.


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