News Feature

Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, November 22, 2018
‘Lobster War’ zones in on U.S.-Canada turf dispute

“Lobster War”

The 2018 documentary film Lobster War highlights the international conflict over 270 square acres of disputed waters between Maine and Canada. It shows at the Stonington Opera House November 30-December 2, with the filmmaker present on December 1 for a Q&A after the film.

Photo courtesy of David Abel

by Anne Berleant

“A fisherman is born not made.” Those words, from the film Lobster War, may ring true to the island fishing community, and to fishermen throughout New England, Canada and beyond. And, just as lobstermen often pass their expertise and way of life down through the generations, so, too, can turf conflicts begin over long-held family fishing areas.

In Lobster War, the disputed turf is 270 square miles of ocean on the U.S.-Canada border, and the “families” are Maine and Canadian lobstermen.

“As anyone from Stonington or midcoast Maine knows, lobster wars are not unique necessarily to this international dispute,” Boston Globe environmental reporter and Lobster War filmmaker David Abel said.

The conflict stems from the rich lobster fishing area around Machias Seal Island, which “is basically a rock between Nova Scotia and Downeast Maine,” Abel said. “Nobody really cared about it that much up to the last 15 or 20 years, when the lobster population started to boom.”

Exactly where the U.S.-Canadian border actually lies is a centuries-old conflict, in which the borders were not perfectly drawn after the end of the Revolutionary War, Abel said. Both countries claim the island, with Canada keeping a manned lighthouse there since the 1830s, as a way to stake their claim to the island. But it is the 270 acres of ocean surrounding the island where lobstermen from both countries are entrenched in a struggle over fishing turf. That area is called the Gray Zone.

Lobster War tells the story from both sides of the border, Abel said, where the “war” has included cut lines and sabotage.

“The waters are incredibly crowded with boats. More lobstermen are flooding into this relatively small area and setting traps on top of each other and cutting each others lines. There’s accounts of sabotage and all sorts of difficulties,” he said. “Both countries are policing each other’s fishermen.

If you ask fishermen from both sides, they will say they are being harassed by law enforcement from the other country.”

For Abel, the story is not just about lobstermen fighting over where they can lay their traps but about the effect climate change is having on the lobster industry.

“Climate change is not some sort of abstract, distant thing, but [it’s] having a real impact on people’s lives today, Abel said. “In essence, it is responsible arguably for fanning the flames, increasing the tension between U.S. and Canada over the use of long-disputed waters.”

While conflict is usually considered essential for any successful film, Abel said that films and stories about fishermen are especially so.

“By nature, they are compelling figures who generally have very passionate opinions and do incredibly dangerous work. Lobster fishing is among the most dangerous professions on the planet. [Lobstermen] are incredibly hardworking. It is just really important work.”

And, he added, they “work in the most beautiful places you can imagine, especially off the coast of Maine.”

Lobster War, by Abel and filmmaker Andy Laub, premiered at the International Maritime Film Festival at Bucksport’s Alamo Theatre in September, where it won second prize for feature film, and then won the 2018 award for Best New England Film at the Mystic Film Festival. It comes to the Stonington Opera House on November 30 through December 2. Abel will be present at the Saturday evening show, and will do a Q & A afterwards.