Does Canada or the U.S. own Machias Seal Island?

Control of an uninhabited island in the Bay of Fundy is up for dispute

Could a tiny, rocky, uninhabited island in the Bay of Fundy ignite the Canadian-American War of 2013? That’s the ominous prospect raised recently by Stephen Kelly, a professor at the Center for Canadian Studies at Duke University in North Carolina. Writing in the New York Times, the retired American diplomat, who twice served in Canada, called for the two countries to settle sovereignty of Machias Seal Island, which lies nearly equidistant between Maine and New Brunswick. Kelly’s concern is the 720 sq. km of water around the island, a magnet for American and Canadian lobster fishermen.

Kelly wants it sorted out now, while stakes are low: with no oil in the area and the current lobster glut, this is “an ideal time to colour in the grey zone,” he writes.

Canada’s official position is that there’s nothing to colour in. John Williamson, MP for New Brunswick Southwest, notes the island is in his riding. A statement from the federal government claims sovereignty is “strongly founded in international law.” Ralph Eldridge, the island’s lightkeeper for the past 16 years, told Canadian Press he “never needed his passport to go there.” Certainly the 81,000-sq.-m site, home to a seabird sanctuary, appears Canuck: the Maple Leaf waves freely and the Canadian Coast Guard tends it.

But Kelly tells Maclean’s the island is the last land mass in contention between the two countries. He owns a house nearby in Maine and has watched lobster “shredders” from both countries overfish the area. That, coupled with recent violent outbursts between Japan and China over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, sounded alarm bells. “Territorial disputes can turn nasty when you least expect it.”

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