Canada investigates run-ins between US customs, fishermen

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — The Canadian government said Thursday it's investigating a series of encounters in which U.S. border patrols have approached Canadian fishing vessels in a disputed island area off the East Coast.

The area in question is around Machias Seal Island, a 20-acre (8-hectare) rock island at the Maine-New Brunswick border.

U.S Customs and Border Protection said Thursday agents whose sector covers the area have interviewed workers on 21 Canadian vessels this fiscal year while conducting regular patrols to enforce immigration laws. The agency said it hasn't made any arrests, and it's operating within its jurisdiction.

But some Canadian fishermen have described the encounters as harassment. Laurence Cook, chair of the Grand Manan Fishermen's Association lobster committee, wrote in a June 25 Facebook post that agents who attempted to stop a Canadian fisherman were "typical American bullies."

Canada is contacting U.S. agencies about the encounters, said John Babcock, a spokesman for Global Affairs Canada. He said Canada considers its sovereignty over the area to be "longstanding" and grounded in international law.

"Until the matter of the boundary is resolved, we will continue to take practical steps with the U.S. to ensure that the area is well managed," Babcock said. "Canada and the U.S. have a long history of cooperation which ensures that fishing in this area in well-managed and safe for both countries."

The Grand Manan Fishermen's Association said it will work with the Canadian government to make sure it is able to keep fishing activities going in a normal fashion.

Machias Seal Island is located off Cutler, Maine, about 200 miles (320 kilometers) up the coast from Portland. The island's only residents, other than numerous seabirds such as puffins, are lighthouse keepers, who are employed by the Canadian Coast Guard.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection described the island area as a "Grey Zone" on Thursday, while Canadian authorities said Canada's title to the area is clear. The dispute has fueled tension between American and Canadian fishermen over the years, as the waters around the island are especially important lobstering grounds.

"It's a pretty significant area," said Geoff Irvine, executive director of the Lobster Council of Canada.