“The Gray Zone” of Machias Seal Island: The Last Border Dispute Between the United States and Canada


“When we think of modern international border disputes, we imagine places like Kashmir, Jerusalem, Crimea or the US-Mexico border,” said filmmaker Brian Gersten. Atlantic. “So when I heard about Machias Seal Island, it was so unexpected.”

Gersten refers to the last remaining border conflict between the United States and Canada. Nicknamed “the Gray Zone,” the 20-acre island sits in the Gulf of Maine. Despite its sovereignty – and that of the 277 square miles of ocean surrounding it – being disputed, the Canadian Coast Guard maintains a lighthouse on the island. Meanwhile, many anglers in the United States and Canada consider it a valuable hunting ground.

“We have this 250-year-old border dispute with one of our closest allies – and it concerns a rock in the middle of the ocean where a group of puffins live. It’s something weird and wild,” Gersten said.

Gersten’s short documentary, The gray area, reviews the history of the skirmish and examines its current implications. It’s a story as old as the Revolutionary War, involving mythological characters and lobsters. (When the United States and Canada submitted further boundary claims to the International Court of Justice in The Hague in 1984, Machias Seal Island was conspicuously absent.)

In the film, subject matter experts reflect on the absurdity of what they claim are lines drawn in the country. “Nation states are imaginary communities,” says Setha M. Low, professor of anthropology at the Graduate Center, CUNY.

“The way people talk about borders these days is as if they were handed down from God,” says Stephen Kelly, a Duke University researcher and former diplomat, “but most people don’t realize how they are arbitrary and erroneous”.

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