By Kate Cough and Stephen Rappaport
JONESPORT — Lined with lobster wharfs on both shores and droves of moored lobster boats, Moosabec Reach is only 40 miles from Canada. But, until recently, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents were as rare as blue lobsters on local waters, in the mainland town or across the bridge on Beals Island.
In recent weeks, though, that has changed.
“I see them in town all the time,” Jonesport lobsterman Rock Alley said Monday. “I used to see them very seldom. Now, it’s every day.”
It isn’t only on land where Alley is seeing the CBP agents.
Just recently, while hauling gear on his 46-foot lobster boat outside Beals Island, Alley was stopped by a CBP patrol boat and received a visit from a crew of CBP agents.
“The actually boarded me,” Alley said.
Once on board, Alley said, the agents asked him to produce identification — his driver’s license, lobster license from the Department of Marine Resources and boat registration. The agents also asked Alley’s crew for identification.
“There was no harassment,” Alley said, and no inspection of his boat, but the agents did have one request.
“They asked us to contact them if we see anything unusual,” like strange boats or “small aircraft” flying around.
Apparently, Alley’s recent encounter with the border protection forces wasn’t unique.
“I heard several guys on the (marine VHF) radio say they’ve been boarded,” and that the agents checked the fishermen’s identification, “just finding out who’s who.”
On Tuesday, Dennis Harmon, Division Chief of the CBP Houlton Sector, confirmed that agents had been patrolling Downeast waters using a high-speed 38-foot SAFE Boat on temporary assignment to the CBP Calais Station in Cobscook Bay. The boat is equipped with four, 300 horsepower outboard motors and is capable of traveling at 50 knots (about 57 miles per hour.)
According to the CBP website, “Marine interdiction agents with CBP’s Air and Marine Operations use the 38-foot Secure Around Flotation Equipped (SAFE) Boat for the pursuit and boarding (inland and offshore) of vessels transiting in locations with extreme weather conditions.”
That certainly describes the waters off Downeast Maine, but according to Harmon, most of the time CBP agents in the area rely on a less powerful 27-foot patrol boat based in Calais.
The CBP patrols haven’t been limited to the Jonesport-Beals area.
According to several reports in the Canadian press, Cutler lobsterman John Druin was stopped while fishing near Machias Seal Island a little more than two weeks ago and asked for his identification. His two sons were also reportedly stopped while fishing.
Canadian lobstermen from Grand Manan have also complained that they were stopped by CBP agents while fishing near Machias Seal Island in what they claim were Canadian waters.
Ownership of Machias Seal Island, located about 12 miles south of Cutler in the Bay of Fundy, is claimed both by Canada and the U.S. and has been the subject of sporadic negotiations between the two countries for years.
U.S. Customs and Border Patrol spokesperson Stephanie Malin called the types of operations recently conducted by agents “routine” and said the group “does not board Canadian vessels without consent or probable cause and only conduct interviews as a vessel runs parallel to it, bow to stern.” Twenty-one Canadian vessels have been “interviewed” by agents in the Houlton sector this year, said Malin, with no immigration arrests.
Malin said fisheries and boating violations are the jurisdiction of the U.S. Coast Guard and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and are not enforced by Customs and Border Patrol agents.
“Operations of this type are within the jurisdiction of the Border Patrol and performed in direct support of land border enforcement efforts as a vital component of our immigration and national security efforts,” Malin added.
The Houlton sector (which encompasses all of the state’s border patrol stations) has seen the fewest number of arrests of all sectors in the country, according to TRAC, a research institute at Syracuse University. The organization counted 103 arrests since October 2014, although data is missing for several months of 2017.
Canadian citizens have been apprehended in the highest numbers, according to TRAC, followed by citizens from Mexico (13) and Honduras (8). Most have been young, between 18 and 24 years old, and 49 have voluntarily left the United States. The data does not break down where most arrests were made, or whether they were made on land or at sea.
Although the region makes up a relatively small percentage of nationwide arrests, the first six months of this year have seen nearly as many arrests by the sector as in 2015, the year with the highest total on record. Agents affiliated with the sector made 28 arrests between January and April of 2018, compared to 32 in all of 2015.
Alley confirmed that the CBP agents have been unusually busy, especially along the coast.
“I’ve never seen them there before, but it’s good to see them doing their job,” Alley said.
When asked, though, the agents wouldn’t specify what, or whom, they were looking for.
“I believe it’s more on the drug side,” Alley said. “That’s the word around town.”