U.S. Border Patrol agents have ramped up their activities along Maine’s maritime border with Canada in an operation that has rankled Canadian fishermen, surprised Americans and alarmed civil liberties groups already concerned about the agency’s activities.

The agents are stopping vessels in a rich lobster fishing area known as the Gray Zone that is claimed by both the United States and Canada.

Twenty-one Canadian vessels and an unknown number of American boats have been questioned by Border Patrol since October 2017 with no immigration arrests, said Stephanie Malin, a Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman.

Maine fishermen report being stopped and asked for identification, and some boats have reportedly been boarded by Border Patrol agents. Canadian fishermen, meanwhile, say the stops are occurring in international waters and Border Patrol agents shouldn’t be boarding their vessels.

John Drouin, a Maine lobsterman from Cutler and chairman of the Lobster Zone A Council, said Border Patrol has been cruising the Down East coast from Cutler to Jonesport. He was stopped two weeks ago in Cutler Harbor and asked for identification, and his son has been stopped and boarded about 6 miles offshore, Drouin said. By now, most of the local lobstermen have been questioned by Border Patrol, he said.

In 40 years of fishing off Maine, it’s the first time he can remember Border Patrol operating offshore like this, Drouin said.

“I personally haven’t seen Border Patrol in the past,” he said.

Any vessel that does not stop when ordered to by Border Patrol agents can be criminally charged, Malin said.

SPOKESWOMAN CALLS PATROLS ROUTINE

Border Patrol is the uniformed law enforcement branch of Customs and Border Protection, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security. Increasing security along the nation’s borders has been a focus of the Trump administration.

The stops have been inconvenient, Drouin said, but he doesn’t feel harassed. However, he hasn’t been able to get a good answer for the sudden uptick in patrols.

“I tried to ask them; they are tight-lipped. They are not going to tell me what is going on,” he said.

Kristan Porter, another Cutler lobsterman and president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said he hasn’t been stopped by Border Patrol yet, but most of the 25 or 30 lobstermen in town have.

“They’ve been very cordial,” he said. “We’ve seen them in the past, but not on this scale. I don’t know what the deal is, if it is doing this area now and another area later.”

The recent patrols are part of the Border Patrol’s routine operations, Malin said in an emailed response to questions.

“Houlton Sector Border Patrol has conducted operations in the past in this area and will continue to conduct operations in the waters off the coast of Maine in jurisdictional waters of the United States,” she said. The agency was conducting regular patrol operations in June to enforce immigration laws and other violations of federal law, Malin said.

She would not say how long the operation lasted or if it is ongoing. She said the agency did not have statistics on how many U.S. vessels have been stopped in Maine this year or in the past five years, and would not say how many vessels and personnel were involved in offshore Border Patrol operations or where precisely agents are patrolling. Customs and Border Protection has its own boats and aircraft.

Federal law gives Border Patrol the authority to stop, search and examine any vehicle entering the U.S., including those in a maritime environment, Malin said. The agency’s authority extends to the borders of the U.S., including the area around Machias Seal Island claimed by the U.S. and Canada, she noted.

The U.S. State Department did not respond to questions about U.S. territorial claims on Machias Seal Island and the Gray Zone.

ACLU CALLS PRACTICES ‘TROUBLESOME’

Border Patrol also has recently increased enforcement operations on major New England highways, including a day-long roadblock on Interstate 95 near Lincoln in June and regular immigration checks of passengers at the Bangor bus station.

It is worrisome that Border Patrol has apparently extended its operations to offshore areas in Maine, said Zachary Heiden, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.

“Customs and Border Protection seems engaged in such a wide variety of troublesome practices, and they are not particularly forthcoming about what they are doing and why they are doing it, which is troubling,” Heiden said. “We are concerned that they are out of control.”

The ACLU has sued the Department of Homeland Security to obtain records relating to Border Patrol operations in northern New England, including bus station and highway checkpoints.

“We are very committed to the idea that law enforcement should not be stopping and questioning people unless they have a good reason to,” Heiden said. “They shouldn’t simply be in the business of stopping people at random who are not suspected of doing anything wrong, whether that is on our roads or our water.”

The Border Patrol operations came to light this week when fishermen from New Brunswick’s Grand Manan Island told news organizations that they had been stopped in Canadian waters by U.S. Border Patrol and questioned about illegal immigrants.

Laurence Cook, chairman of the lobster committee of the Grand Manan Fishermen’s Association, told the Globe and Mail newspaper that in the past two weeks at least 10 Canadian vessels were stopped by Border Patrol around Machias Seal Island in the Gray Zone.

“There’s been a bit of a misunderstanding there somewhere,” Cook told the newspaper. “They’re in international waters, so Border Patrol shouldn’t be boarding Canadian vessels.”

AMERICANS, CANADIANS FISH AREA JOINTLY

In a written statement, the fisherman’s association said American and Canadian fishermen have jointly fished the 102-square-mile area for years.

“We understand that a few Grand Manan fishermen were approached by United States Border Patrol during the month of June. Our understanding is that this was part of a regular exercise conducted along the U.S. marine border,” the association said.

A representative for the association did not respond to an interview request Thursday.

The Canadian government is investigating incidents that occurred in Canadian waters and engaging U.S. agencies involved in the matter, John Babcock, a spokesman for Global Affairs Canada, said in an email.

“Canada’s sovereignty over the Machias Seal Island and the surrounding waters is long-standing and has a strong foundation in international law,” Babcock said. “Until the matter of the boundary is resolved, we will continue to take practical steps with the U.S. to ensure that the area is well-managed.”

Malin, the Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman, said Border Patrol does not board Canadian vessels without consent or probable cause.

The dispute over the Gray Zone around Machias Seal Island dates to the period after the American Revolution. The Canadian Coast Guard maintains a manned lighthouse on the island, but American and Canadian fishermen prowl the rich lobster areas nearby. Tension over fishing rights in the area can get heated when the price of lobster is high, leading to threats and accusations of line-cutting and other sabotage.

Peter McGuire can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: PeteL_McGuire

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