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An Island Dispute: Should It Simply Belong to the Birds?

Rising to a maximum height of barely 29 feet above sea level, Machias Seal Island has long been the center of a border dispute between the U. S. and Canada. Lying some 12 miles from New Brunswick’s Great Manan Island and about 10 miles off Cutler, Maine, the tear-drop shaped, 18-acre is land serves as an important breeding site for Atlantic puffins, razorbills, Arctic terns and other coastal birds. In its early history, coastal areas near the island provided an ancestral home for the Passamaquoddy Tribe. During the Revolutionary War, some Europeans who had remained loyal to the British fled to Grand Manan. Following the war, they were joined by additional settlers, eventually displacing the native people. By 1812, war and disease had reduced the tribe to a mere 360 members. Today, its population stands at just over 3,500. The 1783 Treaty of Paris, which formally ended the American Revolutionary War, gave our new Nation possession of islands off the north-east coast of Maine. Machias Seal Island was then assumed to be part of that agreement. However, located near the entry to Canadian ports, the island was a vital site for a lighthouse. In 1832, the Canadians built two octagonal wooden towers and a keeper’s dwelling on the island. Each equipped with eight lamps and 23-inch reflectors, twin towers had been erected to distinguish their signal lights from lighthouses located on Head Harbor Island and Gannet Rock. Some 9 years later, Machias Seal Island was equipped with a fog signal consisting of an ear-ringing, four-pound signal canon. During the hours of low visibility, the keeper was directed to fire the canon every two hours. Luckily for the then keeper, John Conley and his family, a steam whistle fog-signal replaced an even larger fog canon. Later improvements were made that included the construction of a new keeper’s residence and a 65-foot tall, octagonal concrete lighthouse. It continues to operate today. Though the navigational aid is now fully automated, the Canadian Coast Guard assigns two keepers to the island, serving there mainly for “sovereign purposes.” Transported by helicopter, they remain on site, rotating every for 28-days. In addition, a warden is assigned to oversee the breeding colony’s many visitors and to assist wildlife researchers that spend time on the island. For a short time during World War I, a small detachment of U.S. Marines were deployed on the island, under an agreement with Canada. Their mission consisted of serving as lookouts for German U-boats that might attempt to enter the Bay of Fundy. In 1944, the Canadian government designated the island as a Migratory Bird Sanctuary. It is managed by the Canadian Wildlife Service. Which nation has rights over the treeless, granite rock Machias Seal Island? Mineral and area fishing rights have been in contention, but both countries have agreed to protect the site’s nesting birds. The U.S. claims that the island within its national coastline; the Canadians argue that a land grant, pre-existing the Treaty of Paris, makes it within its territory. And besides, it is frequently said that the Americans have never objected to the Canadian lighthouse on the property. As the waters of Long Island Sound, Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts warmed, their lobster population has seen a significant decrease. By 2014 in the Sound, landings were less than one-tenth of the average harvest in the 1980s. During that time, the valuable crustaceans had migrated to colder waters. The northern Gulf of Maine soon became host to an exploding population. In less than ten years, annual landings increased from approximately twenty million pounds to about 130 million pounds! Unfortunately, by September 2019, there was a 50 million-pound decrease in Maine’s lobster landings. It was attributed to the rapidly increasing water temperature in the Gulf of Maine. The 277 square miles of sea, surrounding Machias Seal Island, called the Gray Zone, has become the site for a possible “lobster war” between Canadian and Maine commercial lobstermen. Luckily so far, there have been no reports of any serious conflicts. But just which country has the sovereign rights to the island and its Gray Zone is yet to be determined. Perhaps the island itself should simply continue to be maintained by Canada and the U.S. as a bird sanctuary, and then delineate which area of the Gray Zone can be fished by their own lobstermen. Weighing barely one pound, the Atlantic puffin is perhaps the island’s most attractive nesting bird. It spends a great deal of time at sea, floating high in the water or swimming below the surface in the hunt for its favorite meals. These include small herring, caplin and sand lance. It also consumes krill, marine worms and some mollusks. Using its wings to propel itself and steering with its webbed feet, it frequently dives to about 30 feet, though it is capable of reaching a depth of 200 feet in search of its prey. The puffin’s raspy tongue and upper bill, equipped with a row of small hooks, allows it to grip and carry ten or more small squirming fishes at a time. Some of these birds have been spotted carrying up to 60 small fishes. Though Atlantic puffins are graceful underwater, flying seems to be a bit more difficult for the birds. They flap their wings at a rate of 400 times per minute to keep themselves aloft, yet they somehow manage to attain speeds of up to 55 miles per hour! Landing is quite another thing. They often seem to crash-land into the sea and sometimes they can be seen tumbling as they land on the ground. When walking, they resemble a penguin‘s waddle. Their large red and yellow bill has earned them the nickname,” sea parrot” and their antics, “clown of the sea.” The puffins arrive on Machias Seal Island in late April and head back to sea in August (though some remain into September). Year after year, they generally mate with the same partner and frequently return to the same burrow. When the burrow is not available, the male digs a new one in the ground or under rocks with its bill and web feet. The female lays a single egg and the pair take turns in its incubation. Hatching occurs in about 36 to 45 days and a parent then remains with the chick to keep it warm during at least the first week. Both parents then leave their hatchling in the safety of the burrow and head out to sea in search of food for their growing chick. The newly hatched leave the burrow in about 36 to 50 days, spending their first 2 to 3 years at sea. They then begin to return to their natal colony for a summer stay. They mature in 4 to 6 years. Atlantic puffins can live for 20 to 30 or more years. Machias Seal Island is the only puffin colony that allows visitors to go ashore. Convenient blinds give visitors an opportunity to see and photograph them up close, as well as the other interesting birds that nest or frequent the island. The only access is via boat charters, one out of Cutler, Maine, Bold Coast Charters, 207 259-4484 and Sea Watch Tours from Grand Manan, New Brunswick, 877-662-8552. For any nature lover, a trip to the island should place high on their BUCKET LIST.

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