The Canadian lighthouse on Machias Seal Island, which is located about 12 miles off the coast of Cutler, is seen in this undated photo. The waters near the island are referred to as the "gray zone" because both Canada and the U.S. claim the island. According to Canadian media reports, U.S. border officials have been questioning Canadian fishermen near the island about possible illegal immigration activities. Credit: Courtesy of Maine Marine Patrol

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents have been questioning Canadian fishermen in disputed territorial waters around Machias Seal Island about possible illegal immigration.

CBP officials indicated Thursday that they have had contact with 21 Canadian vessels near the Maine-New Brunswick border since October 2017. The agency did not specify how many of those vessels are in the so-called “Gray Zone” of disputed territorial waters around the island, which lies about 12 miles southwest of the Canadian island of Grand Manan and 12 miles southeast of the Maine village of Cutler.

The Canadian government staffs and maintains a lighthouse station on the small, low-lying island.

The CBC reported Wednesday that U.S. officials have approached at least two boats, possibly more, in the disputed area over the past couple of weeks.

The patrols are part of recent increased enforcement actions nationwide by the U.S. agency, including a checkpoint last month along Interstate 95 north of Bangor. U.S. law allows such immigration enforcement actions to be conducted anywhere within 100 miles of the border.

In a statement, CBP officials said its agents have conducted border patrols within the territorial waters of the U.S. “for decades.” It said it was conducting regular patrols in June near the Maine-New Brunswick and that it will continue to do so.

Agency officials said that they do not patrol for fisheries violations or boating violations, which is the responsibility of the U.S. Coast Guard and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, nor do they board Canadian vessels without consent or probable cause. Interviews with Canadian fishermen are conducted only as a vessel runs parallel to a patrol boat, bow to stern.

Federal law gives the agency “the authority to stop, search and examine any vehicle entering the United States, including those [in] the maritime environment,” CBP officials wrote. So far this fiscal year, Border Patrol agents have not made any arrests as a result of the marine patrols but have assisted in two rescues, they added.

Global Affairs Canada, the equivalent of the State Department in the U.S., told the CBC that it has confirmed at least two incidents in which Customs and Border Patrol agents had questioned Canadian fishermen off the island.

“Canada’s sovereignty over the Machias Seal Island and the surrounding waters is long-standing and has a strong foundation in international law,” Global Affairs spokeswoman Elizabeth Reid told the CBC in an email. “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.”

The island’s nationality has been disputed for roughly 200 years, as a series of treaties between the U.S. and the United Kingdom, which ruled over Canadian lands before they gained independence in 1867, never addressed which country it belonged to. Canada has maintained a consistent presence on the island since its founding, inheriting a lighthouse that was built there in 1832.

In recent decades, the main thrust of the dispute has been over fishing rights surrounding the island. Lobstermen from Washington County in Maine and New Brunswick set traps around the island, which has led to minor gear conflicts between the two groups.

Watch for updates.

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....