Of Lobsters and Lighthouses: Searching for Sovereignty at Machias Seal Island

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Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on Canadian coastal histories, which considers intersections of nature and culture along the saline shores of the land and tidewaters currently known as Canada, the country with the world’s longest coastline. Guest-edited by Sara Spike.

This post is also part of a series based on presentations that would have taken place at the 2020 Canadian Historical Association Annual Meeting at Western University in London, Ontario (June 1-3).

In February 1935, Thomas Morgan, a lobster fisherman from North Head on Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick, wrote to the Canadian Department of Fisheries with a query:

Would you kindly let me know, does Machias Seal Island belong to Canada or the United States. It has been an argument amongst the fisherman of Grand Manan for a good many years. The reason of this argument is this[:] can a fisherman from Grand Manan fish lobster traps around Machias Seal Island out of season[?] I have been ask[ed] by several fisherman to write your department for this information. If Canada owns the above Island mentioned We claim that our fisherman cannot fish lobster traps around Seal Island out of season.[1]

Men on fishing wharves on Grand Manan Island, ca. 1939. Author unknown, courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.

He was frustrated at the confusion caused by the indeterminate title of Machias Seal Island, a small island in the Gulf of Maine. In the rock- and island-strewn waters of Passamaquoddy Bay and the mouth of the Bay of Fundy, fishermen from Maine and New Brunswick knew well the invisible international border that divided their fishing territories and structured the geography of their seasonal catches. But Machias Seal Island caused a problem for fishermen in these North Atlantic boundary waters. Nobody knew which country “owned” the island, which left the question of which state held jurisdiction over its surrounding waters up for debate.

This map shows the international boundary passing between New Brunswick and Maine in Passamaquoddy Bay and the Gulf of Maine. It is the first page in the Department of External Affairs’ file on Machias Seal Island, despite the fact that the island itself is not on the map. Library and Archives Canada, RG 25, Series A-3-b, Volume 2683, File 10902-40.

Morgan’s note remained unanswered until the boundary issue around Machias Seal Island bubbled to a head in the spring of 1938. That May, the note passed over the desk of O. D. Skelton at the Department of External Affairs. A seasoned veteran of Canadian diplomacy, Skelton felt that the only way to settle the ongoing fisheries question would be “to tell the US we are preparing to inform the fishermen that it is the territory of Canada.” But he knew that this overt claim to disputed territory would not go over well with the Americans. Writing to William A. Found, Deputy Minister of Fisheries, Skelton cautioned, “before committing ourselves to such a position, I think we should make sure we can maintain it,” and asked, “Would it be possible to have a comprehensive memorandum (and ultimately map) prepared?”[2]

And so the Department of External Affairs got to work, completing a nine-page memorandum called “Canadian Sovereignty Over Machias Seal Island” in the summer of 1938.[3] The document traced the island’s appearance (or absence) in various boundary treaties signed between the United States and Britain since the 1783 Treaty of Paris, as well as aggregated prior correspondence and memos from previous diplomatic debates. The authors concluded that “a claim upon Machias Seal Island based upon the treaties and diplomatic action would be very weak indeed.”[4] However, deeds and historical documents were only one part of Canada’s defensible assertion of sovereignty.

More concretely, the Department of External Affairs identified the presence of a Canadian lighthouse on the island as proof of “continuous and undisturbed possession” since 1832, the year the first lighthouse was built on Machias Seal Island by the colonial government of New Brunswick. The memo quotes an earlier document compiled in 1933 by J. Read, Legal Adviser to the Department of External Affairs: “It is certain that Canada does not establish a lighthouse anywhere, either in the United States or Newfoundland, without obtaining express authority from the Government of that country. Under such circumstances, the Canadian action in maintaining a lighthouse is completely consistent with the local sovereignty, and indeed is an express recognition of such sovereignty.”[5] To Ottawa, the lighthouse was confirmation that Machias Seal Island was Canadian territory.

Duplicate of the original plan and description of Machias Seal Island lighthouse by George F. Hibbard, Registrar of Deeds for Charlotte County, NB, on May 3, 1912. The original was copied per request of the Department of the Secretary of State of Canada during one earlier flare-ups of the Machias Seal Island conflict in 1912. This map was used to help write the memo of 1938. Library and Archives Canada, RG 25, Series A-3-b, Volume 2683, File 10902-40.

The question of title to Machias Seal Island was important not only for the sake of the island itself but because of the assumed relationship between land and sea. Coastlines projected sovereignty, and thus jurisdiction for concerns such as maritime law and fisheries regulation, out over their surrounding waters. Though it would be a number of years before the first United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, both Canadian and American governments shared the same understanding of jurisdiction and sovereignty in coastal waters: in principle, whichever country held title to the island had the authority to regulate lobster fishing activities in its surrounding waters.

This was not the first time that the issue of lobster fishing around Machias Seal Island had escalated to an international diplomatic concern, and nor would it be the last. The seasonal movement of lobsters and the local territorial politics of lobster fishing seemed to put pressure on both Ottawa and Washington to shore up the ragged edges of their territories. However, as Ted McDorman has observed, the regulation of maritime boundaries in the recent history of Canada-USA diplomatic relations has been characterized by “cooperation, coordination, and a healthy amount of benign neglect of disputes.”[6] So nothing came of the 1938 memo, nor anything from the re-emergence of the dispute again in the 1950s. In the decades that followed, lobstering in the “Grey Zone” (as it came to be known) functioned on an informal system of accommodation at the local level between fishermen from Grand Manan and Washington County, Maine.

In the early 2000s, the issue again escalated as lobster fishermen from Grand Manan complained that the two overlapping systems in place for regulating lobster catches—Canadian regulation by “closed” and “open” seasons, and American regulation by volume—were incompatible and were causing the depletion of one of the last healthy fisheries in the Gulf of Maine.[7] The issue remains unresolved.[8]

It is no surprise, therefore, that the lighthouse on Machias Seal Island is one of the last lighthouses on Canada’s Atlantic coastline with a full-time keeper, and that they are stationed on the island explicitly “for sovereignty purposes.”[9] The lighthouse does more than demarcate the dangerous boundary between land and sea. Its presence asserts a geopolitical boundary and a claim to singular Canadian sovereignty on the land and in the waters over which its light shines. Sovereignty is an ongoing process, and is neither permanently fixed nor inherently stable. Machias Seal Island sits in a liminal space where coastlines and international borders are up for debate—a unique environment where lighthouses and lobsters have the power to shape international diplomacy.

Machias Seal Island lighthouse, 2016. Photo Charles W. Bash (Creative Commons)

[1] Thomas Morgan of North Head, Grand Manan, February 22, 1935, LAC, RG 25, Series A-3-b, Volume 2683, File 10902-40.
[2] O. D. Skelton, May 5 [?] 1938, LAC, RG 25, Series A-3-b, Volume 2683, File 10902-40.
[3] Legal Division of the Department of External Affairs, “Canadian Sovereignty Over Machias Seal Island,” Ottawa, 1938, LAC, RG 25, Series A-3-b, Volume 2683, File 10902-40.
[4] “Canadian Sovereignty Over Machias Seal Island,” 1938, 6.
[5] J. Read, “Memorandum Concerning Machias Seal Island,” September 21, 1933. Emphasis added.
[6] Ted L. McDorman, Salt Water Neighbors: International Ocean Law Relations Between the United States and Canada (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 3. See also Joan Marshall, “Defining Maritime Boundaries: ‘the murky hand of history’s oversight’ in the Gulf of Maine,” Canadian Geographer 48, no. 3 (2004): 266–86.
[7] Beverly Cook, “Lobster Boat Diplomacy: The Canada-US Grey Zone,” Marine Policy 29 (2005): 390.
[8] The most recent escalation was in the summer of 2018, when American border patrols began stopping Canadian fishing vessels around the island to look for “illegal immigrants.” Amanda Connolly, “What’s driving the dispute over US border patrols and Canadian fishermen around Machias Seal Island?” Global News, July 5, 2018, https://globalnews.ca/news/4314473/whats-driving-the-dispute-over-u-s-border-patrols-and-canadian-fishermen-around-machias-seal-island/
[9] A direct quote from the Parks Canada Directory of Federal Heritage Designations, https://www.pc.gc.ca/apps/dfhd/page_hl_eng.aspx?id=14913&i=72336
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Kate Bauer

I am currently a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto, and I hold a BA and MA in history from McGill University. My SSHRC-funded dissertation research looks at the social, political, and envirotechnical histories of lighthouses and lighthouse keepers on Canada’s oceanic and lacustrine coastlines in the decades after Confederation.


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