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. The resulting territorial dispute around the island between Maine and Canadian fishermen is the subject of a documentary film that will be screened Sept. 29 as part of the International Maritime Film Festival in Bucksport. Credit: Maine Marine Patrol photo

A centuries-old land dispute between Canada and the United States has been getting more heated as a wave of increased lobster catches has moved east along the Maine coast.

And now that a documentary film on the topic has been released, it’s about to get more public attention, too.

“Lobster War” is scheduled to be screened at the Alamo Theater in Bucksport on Sept. 29 as part of the International Maritime Film Festival.

The dispute over whether Machias Seal Island is part of Maine or part of New Brunswick — and how that dispute has affected lobster fishermen from each country who fish near the border — is the topic of “Lobster War,” a film by David Abel and Andy Laub. Abel, an award-winning journalist for The Boston Globe, has worked with Laub, a nature and cultural documentary filmmaker, on prior films “Sacred Cod” and “Gladesmen.”

The movie, in which Abel and Laub interview mostly lobstermen on each side of the border, highlights how the disagreement has been exacerbated by changes in the Gulf of Maine that, over the past 30 years, have made the gulf’s lobster fishery one of the most lucrative in the country.

Overfishing of other species, most notably cod, is thought to have helped increase landings of lobster in Maine by roughly 500 percent, from around 20 million pounds per year in the mid-1980s to more than 130 million pounds in 2016.

A marked increase in the average temperature of the Gulf of Maine over that same time period may have played an even bigger role. As the Gulf of Maine has gotten warmer, the bulk of catches by Maine fishermen have slowly been moving slowly east along the coast toward New Brunswick, away from the warmer water creeping into the gulf from the southwest.

And as the catch has shifted east, the value of the fishery has soared. The statewide value of the annual harvest in 1988 was $60 million, while in 2015 and 2016 it exceeded $500 million.

The film interviews players in the industry in close proximity on both sides of the border about how the increasing economic stakes prompted Canadian authorities in 2002 to allow a summer fishery in the so-called “Gray Zone” of 277 square miles of disputed territory around the island. Traditionally, Canadian lobstermen have fished in the winter and Maine fishermen in the summer. The conflict around Machias Seal Island has intensified significantly since fishermen from either side of the border began setting and hauling their gear at the same time.

Abel said he first thought about making a film about the Gray Zone several years after visiting and writing a piece about it for the Globe.

“I felt like it was such a rich story, with much more to say than I could fit in the 1,200 or so words I could get in the paper,” he wrote Friday in an email. “But the idea really came together after our previous film, ‘Sacred Cod,’ was broadcast last year on the Discovery Channel. That was a film that looked at the role that climate change has played in the collapse of the cod fishery. ‘Lobster War’ is a film that looks at the role of climate change in leading to a surge in the lobster population.”

The heightened sensitivity in the United States over border security also has contributed to the border tension in the gulf. This past summer, U.S. customs officials drew the ire of Canadian fishermen when they stopped and questioned them in the vicinity of the island.

More than a dozen maritime-themed films, including shorts and features, are scheduled to be screened at the film festival, which runs from Sept. 28 through 30 at The Alamo. There will be question-and-answer sessions with the filmmakers after several of the screenings, including “Lobster War.”

More information about the film festival can be found at

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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....