New Legislation Could Cool U.S. Tensions in Heated ‘Grey Zone’

Captain Brian Cates of the F/V Legacy, seen here on a publicity poster for “Lobster War: The Fight Over the World’s Richest Fishing Grounds,” was given a summons for hauling traps during off hours in the contested waters of the grey zone. Cates is one of many Downeast fishermen featured in this new documentary about grey zone tensions directed by Pulitzer-prize winning journalist David Abel and produced by filmmaker Andy Laub. (Photo courtesy David Abel)

By Sarah Craighead 



Despite a history of congenial relations, a 277-square-mile expanse of water stands out as a persistent disagreement between the United States and Canada.

The “grey zone” is the name given to prime lobster waters between Washington County and Grand Manan, New Brunswick, where the matter of jurisdiction has been in question since the 1700s. Today it is fished by lobstermen from both nations, but each side fishes according to different rules. 

LD 618, “An Act To Remove Nighttime Restrictions on Lobster Fishing in a Certain Area in the Bay of Fundy” could allow American lobstermen to work the waters 24-hours a day between Labor Day and Memorial Day, which would put them nearer to equal footing with their Canadian peers who can fish the area 24-hours a day for all but four days of the year.

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Will Tuell (R-E. Machias) and is co-sponsored by Rep. Robert Alley (D-Beals), Sen. Marianne Moore (R-Washington), and Rep. Faulkingham (R-Winter Harbor), all members of the Washington County delegation, plus representatives from Harpswell, Stonington and Newcastle. Tuell, Alley, Faulkingham, and two co-sponsors sit on the joint Marine Resources Committee.

“That kind of ties our hands, if we’re not able to be out there at nighttime, but they can,” said Cutler fisherman Brian Cates. “It would be one thing if our government could enforce the laws against them, but they can’t. Therefore, we feel like we have to be out there at nighttime.” 

Tuell submitted a similar bill in 2016 and said he resubmitted the issue after hearing the concerns of some local fishermen like Cates and John Drouin. [see “Wash. Co. jury acquits Cutler fisherman of hauling illegally in the ‘grey zone’” below this story].

“The Canadians, they have an extremely unfair advantage over us because of the way their regulations are,” said Drouin, who is also the chair of the Zone A Lobster Council. “They can go 24/7 every day of the week and we can’t. They know these things.” 

“The grey zone bill is an attempt to recognize that you have two different groups of fishermen, one American and one Canadian, fishing the same waters under different rules, and American fishermen feel as though they're being taken advantage of,” said Tuell. 

The Canadian lobstering season is different from Maine’s in many ways. Canadian commercial lobstermen can haul 375 traps, compared to an American’s 800, and in most Canadian waters the summer is shut down to fishing in order to let the lobsters breed. But in the grey zone, Canadian fishermen can haul 24 hours a day, for all but four days of the year.


“[Maine fishermen] are losing gear, they’re losing traps, they feel as though they should be able to fish their traps under the same conditions and same time frames that the Canadians do,” said Tuell.

From Canada’s side

Grand Manan grey zone lobsterman Pete Cheney started lobstering in the late 1990s and said he knows there have been bad actors, but by and large, he believes grey zone fishermen conduct themselves well.

“The only reason why there’s a problem now is because there’s lobsters. The stakes get higher and people get hotter,” said Cheney. “In my mind, all the fishermen do really well.” 

Even taking international friction out of the equation, Cheney said he hopes Tuell’s bill succeeds. Sometimes, he said, you just have to go fishing at night because that’s when the best tides or weather happens. Canadian fishermen have that option and Cheney thinks American fishermen should, too.

“There’s nights here when our harbors are empty,” said Cheney. “Some mornings I’ll leave at midnight. Some nights I’ll leave at suppertime if we’ve been blown in for the last week. If a window finally comes, you have to go when it comes.”

LD 618 will go before the Marine Resources Committee for a public hearing on Tuesday, Feb. 26 at 1:15 p.m. The hearing may be streamed live through www.