BAR HARBOR – Lobsterman Brian Cates of Cutler regularly fishes in the territory around Machias Seal Island that’s disputed territory between the U.S. and Canada. It’s known as the Gray Zone.
For generations, it was mostly Maine fishermen who worked in the area. But, there also weren’t huge numbers of lobsters there. In recent years, as lobster landings have shifted north and east as the water in the Gulf of Maine gets warmer, fishermen from both Maine and New Brunswick have increasingly been setting traps in the Gray Zone. As it gets crowded, conflicts are simmering.
“Lobster War,” a new documentary by David Abel and Andy Laub, focuses on the lobster fishery in the 277-square-mile disputed area. It will be screened at the Criterion Theatre on Saturday, Dec. 16 at 7 p.m.
Cates is one of the fishermen featured in the film. He and his wife Wanda traveled to Stonington this past Saturday when it was screened at the Opera House.
Abel was there too, he told the Islander Monday.
“It’s nerve-wracking” to show a film, especially to the people who are in it, he said. They may be “suspicious, and rightfully so, of people who might try to inflame the situation or have some kind of agenda.”
But the audience in Stonington, like audiences at the film’s premiere at Bucksport’s Maritime Film Festival in September and at many other festivals since, seemed to like it.
“I was heartened by the response,” Abel said. “I think people from both sides have felt like the film was fair and thorough. Like it captured the tensions and the reasons for the tensions.”
He reported on the Gray Zone conflict in May of 2015 when tensions between American and Canadian fishermen began to intensify. The Maine Marine Patrol was beginning to increase patrols in the area.
“There have been death threats on both sides of the watery divide between the United States and Canada,” he wrote in the Globe at the time, “as lobstermen accuse each other of sabotaging lines, stealing gear, and setting traps atop those already in the water.”
He and filmmaking partner Laub headed to Cutler and to Grand Manaan last summer to begin shooting the film. They filmed through the end of the year.
“We tell the story from both the Canadian and American perspective,” he said. “There are a lot of differences in the way they fish and the rules that regulate the way they fish.”
For example, Canadian fishery rules don’t include a maximum legal size for lobster, as Maine rules do. Lobstermen in Canada can “keep the so-called broodstock,” Abel said. “That really pisses off the Mainers.”
On the other hand, there is a set season for the lobster fishery in Canada, while many Maine fishermen work year-round.
“An exception was made in the Canadian regulatory scheme that allows fishermen in proximity to the Gray Zone to fish in the summer in the Gray Zone where they would ordinarily be cooling their heels waiting for the fishery to open in November,” he said.
“They’re the only Canadians that are allowed to fish that time of the year. They feel like if they don’t fish it, the Americans are going to get all the lobsters. If you ask them their preference, their preference would be to shut it down.”
They would rather “follow the Canadian practice, starting to fish in the colder months so the lobsters are meatier and [have a] harder shell.”
The Maine Department of Marine Resources reported landings in Washington County—which includes the Gray Zone—of 23 million pounds in 2016. (U.S. regulators do not track landings specifically from the Gray Zone. Their Canadian counterparts do.)
As landings and income have soared, fishermen on both sides of the line invest in boats and gear, raising the stakes of the competition even higher.
“In some ways they have to make more money to pay for all the things they’ve invested in,” Abel said.
Abel is a veteran reporter for the Boston Globe who began “moonlighting” as a filmmaker, he said, about five years ago. He was at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon, filming a documentary about the first dwarf to finish the marathon, when the bombs went off.
“I was still learning how to use a camera,” he said, when he “filmed the very horrible aftermath of the bombs.”
His coverage of the bombing for the Globe won a Pulitzer Prize, and he later completed two different films about Juli Windsor, who in 2014 did become the first dwarf to run the Boston Marathon since she was prevented from finishing in 2013.
As an environmental reporter for the Globe, Abel often writes about fisheries issues. “Lobster War” is his second film about the fishing industry. The first, “Sacred Cod,” was acquired by the Discovery Channel and broadcast in 2017.
Both films are stories about how “climate change is having a very real impact on people’s lives now,” he said.