You probably won’t find two countries anywhere in the world whose historic and well as current relations have been more peaceable than the U.S. and Canada. However, we still have disputed border areas located off our Atlantic, Pacific as well as our Arctic coasts that both the U.S. government as well as our neighbors to the north claim.
When disputed international boundaries have the potential to erupt into battles or wars, you’ll hear a lot about them in the media (such as India’s borders with both Pakistan as well as India’s borders with the PRC, or Israel’s borders with its neighbors for example.)
However, when the governments of U.S. and Canada don’t clearly agree on precise coastal border demarcations, but the relations between the two countries have always been very peaceful, it rarely makes the news, if ever.
This is now the second decade of the twenty- first century, and we still have disputed border areas located off our Atlantic, Pacific as well as our Arctic coasts that both the U.S. government as well as our neighbors to the north claim.
The issues relating to whether or not to preserve these sections of seas, harbors and inlets as wildlife refuges, whether to keep them open for commercial fishing, whether to open them up for oil, natural gas and mineral exploration all need to be addressed.
If these sections of these seas, inlets and harbors are to be preserved as wildlife refuges, then the issue of which country the tourist ferries can operate from, and who gets the tourism revenue needs to be solved.
If these seas, inlets and harbors are to be kept open for commercial fishing or opened up for mineral and oil and natural gas exploration, then the U.S. and the Canadian governments will need to decide who regulates the fishing, oil, natural gas and mineral exploration, and who gets the tax revenue.
The issue of which country’s law enforcement agencies and coast guard should be responsible for patrolling these waters needs to be addressed.
Someone’s marine police units and coast guard needs to rescue boaters who get into accidents, fall victim to severe weather, as well as patrol the waters for smugglers. In extreme emergency situations, rescue boats will cross international boundaries to prevent someone from drowning, but we still need to establish clear borders so that the areas which are to be patrolled by the U.S. coast guard as well as our law enforcement agencies are clear, and the Canadian Coast Guard and their law enforcement agencies need to have their jurisdictions clearly defined.
None of these issues can be solved while the status remain in legal limbo.
The areas which are still currently not clearly defined are sections of the Dixon Entrance, which is located to the south of Prince Of Wales Island in Alaska, and to the north of Graham Island, British Columbia, a section of the Beaufort Sea which is located to the north of Nanavut, the Northwest Territories, the Yukon and Alaska, sections of the Strait Of Juan De Fuca which is located to the north of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, and to the south of Vancouver Island.
On our Atlantic Coast, the two islands, Machias Seal Island and North Rock which are located to the east of Maine and New Brunswick are still claimed by both the U.S. as well as Canada.
The largest coastal waterway which is presently claimed by both countries is sections of the Northwest Passage. As parts of the Arctic ice is now melting and thinning, geologists believe that some of the largest natural gas reserves in the entire world may be located under the Northwest Passage, and that drilling for those reserves may soon be possible.
The “grey zone” in the Atlantic coast between New Brunswick and Maine encompasses approximately 445 square miles (including Machais Seal Island and North Rock). The disputed area in the Strait of Juan De Fuca to the west of the San Juan Islands amounts to approximately 31 square miles- this is all navigable waterways, no land is involved. The area within The Beaufort Sea that neither of our governments can agree upon ownership of is much larger; this disputed zone encompasses 8,100 square miles.
The disputed section of the Dixon Entrance between Graham Island, British Columbia and Prince of Wales Island, Alaska encompasses approximately 50 square miles. This section is further complicated because there are rocks which become islands at low tide, but are submerged during high tides within the Dixon Entrance, and we need to decide if these constitute “lands.”
While the 1992 NAFTA agreement (which was entered into effect as of January 1994) was intended to facilitate trade throughout North America, it was never intended to solve ALL of the issues relating to commercial agriculture and industry which involve the U.S. and Canada. The NAFTA agreement did not make any mention at all of the issues relating to the lack of agreement between the U.S. and Canada regarding precisely where our borders are located. These issues aren’t actually anything new at all.
The boundary disputes in the coastal regions of Maine and New Brunswick as well as between British Columbia, Washington and Alaska date back to 1977. The Northwest Passage only has become of interest recently because of potential exploration for natural gas reserves.
“I Let My Neighbor Know Beyond The Hill”
Machias Seal Island has a lighthouse located on it, the Machias Seal Island Lighthouse was built in 1915. For the past 101 years, the lighthouse has been owned as well as maintained by the Canadian Coast Guard. The ownership of the lighthouse itself has never been disputed, it is the island itself which has been in question since 1977.
There are three lighthouse keepers houses and maintenance houses on Machias Seals Island, which could easily be used as park ranger stations if this island were to become a Maine state park, a New Brunswick provincial park or either an American or a Canadian national park, or national seashore. However, given this island’s current status in the “grey zone,” it actually can’t become anything other than a nuisance for politicians on both sides of the border.
If the Canadian government feels that certain coastal regions should be patrolled by the U.S. Coast Guard, and if our Federal government feels that those same regions are the responsibility of the Canadian Coast Guard, then guess who ends up patrolling those waters? Correct- no one. So far, this has not happened, we don’t have sections of our border seas off the coasts of Maine, New Brunswick, Alaska, British Columbia or Washington which are not patrolled, but until precise borders are agreed upon, this could actually conceivably happen. If I were a smuggler or a terrorist, the first thing that I’d be looking for is to see where international borders are most vulnerable.
There aren’t any obvious simply simple solutions to solving boundary disputes.
The Canadian government ratified the United Nations Convention On The Law Of The Sea in 1982, and they ratified the subsequent 1994 agreement which established the International Seabed Authority.
The U.S. government has signed the 1994 agreement, but we’ve never actually ratified it, which essentially means that we haven’t yet officially agreed to abide by the terms of the 1982 UN Convention On The Law Of The Sea. Because we’ve not yet ratified the UN Convention On The Law Of The Sea, and I’m not seeing any indications that any of our current candidates for President intend to ratify it anytime soon (or that any of them have even acknowledged that this treaty even exists at all), our waterway border disputes with our neighbor to the north will likely have to be resolved bilaterally, rather than through any UN agencies.
This means that whomever our next President will be, our next President and his/ her staff need to recognize that ignoring these disputed boundaries in our (or “their”) waterways will accomplish absolutely nothing whatsoever; these border issues won’t magically resolve themselves.
Our next President and his or her staff will hopefully decide that it is time to meet with representatives from the Canadian government and that we need to establish precise borders that make sense to both governments.
Whether or not to set aside sections of seas as marine sanctuaries for habitat and ecosystem protection, protection of endangered species, and precisely where the boundaries are located, commercial fishing rights, oil exploration, mineral exploration, natural gas exploration, tourism revenue, patrolling for rescuing stranded boaters, marine patrolling for smugglers and criminals are NOT trivial issues at all- the only remaining question is how much longer does our Federal government want to decide to ignore our disputed water boundaries.
One of the possible results of resolving our disputed national boundaries within our coastal waterways could potentially be that we’d end up ceding some territory within our waterways to Canada.
Most politicians understand that even mentioning any proposals which could potentially result in shrinking the size of our country by redefining our boundaries within our coastal waterways, even by only a few miles will be a very easy way to guarantee that they’ll lose an election.
Many voters don’t want to hear about how compromises will be mutually beneficial to both countries for the duration of this century, and on into the next one, as soon as people hear about a proposal which could result in the loss of even a few miles of territory within our waterways, they’ll immediately decide to vote for someone else