Machias Seal Island is an unlikely location for an international border dispute, a heated and increasingly dangerous conflict and an illuminating flashpoint for the worldwide crisis that is global warming, and yet here we are. The island off of Cutler is about 20 acres’ worth of bare rock, protected puffins and seals, and the only manned lighthouse left on the coast. (More on that later.) It’s just another speckled rock in the Gulf of Maine, weathering the warring tides between the United States and Canada in unassuming silence.
Machias Seal Island – and the miles of fishing grounds around it – is also the subject of the new film “Lobster War.” Hardly hyperbole, the title refers to the fact that the changing environment in the gulf has turned the largely ignored waters surrounding the island into one of the most contentiously contested fishing grounds in the world, and how its newfound value is emblematic of the coming conflicts caused by manmade global warming in miniature. Co-directed by Boston Globe reporter David Abel and filmmaker Andy Laub, the film, which screens at The Strand Theatre in Rockland on Sunday and the Lincoln County Community Theater in Damariscotta on Jan. 17, is the duo’s third collaboration. Like their previous films, “Sacred Cod” and “The Gladesmen,” “Lobster War” was inspired by Abel’s position as environmental reporter at the Globe, a job that necessarily brings him to Maine quite frequently.
“Marine issues are a main part of my beat,” explains Abel (who won a Pulitzer Prize for his part in the paper’s coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing). “I’ve been covering fisheries issues for years, and so Maine is part of my work.” It’s in covering the dwindling of Maine’s vital cod stocks for “Sacred Cod” that Abel saw how the warming of the Gulf of Maine – which spells disaster for the cod – had the opposite effect in the waters of Machias Seal Island. And how the ensuing lobster boom in the cold waters there spell trouble for Maine and Canadian lobstermen, the Maine economy and, inevitably, all of us.
At the root of the problem is global warming, which has become a controversial issue – at least for those who don’t listen to lobstermen. The water in the gulf has been warming, drastically, with the range of colder waters flowing steadily north. Lobsters can only thrive in a rather narrow band of temperatures. As that band moves north, the lobsters move with it – in the last 10 to 15 years increasingly to the now lucratively teeming icy waters around Machias Seal Island. Now Maine and Canadian lobstermen are fishing the same areas, leading to conflicts including sabotage, threats, pulling others’ traps and more. As Abel explains, this smaller-scale squabbling over shrinking resources is the danger of climate change made all too real for working lobstermen.
“Our hope is that the takeaway from our film is that climate change is not some abstract threat,” explains Abel. “It’s having an impact on people’s lives now, and that impact is very much related to the warming waters of the Gulf of Maine.” For sobering proof of just how devastating those effects are, Abel says you only have to look down the coast. “The waters of Cape Cod, of Long Island Sound, they employed hundreds and hundreds, until the warming waters there caused a collapse in the lobster population. There’s a 90 percent decline in the catch south of Cape Cod. It’s put a lot of people out of business and changed the culture and economy that depended on it for generations.”
Along with other increasingly worrisome factors (like the CO2-linked acidification of the oceans, which has seen a weakening of shellfish shells), the global warming trend in Maine is hardly news to the people who work those waters. Says Abel, “Lobstermen have a deeper understanding and desire to learn about the impact of warming waters than anyone. They know global warming is not some liberal fantasy, or some government scheme to make their lives worse.” Accordingly, the subjects of “Lobster War,” fishermen from both sides of the border, have been largely complimentary about Abel and Laub’s even-handed approach. “It was a little nerve-wracking,” admits Abel. “At the film’s premiere this fall at the International Maritime Film Festival in Bucksport, there were fishermen from Maine and Canada there. But the response was very positive about how we approached the complexity of the issue.”
As to the future of tiny Machias Seal Island, Abel says, like the crisis of global warming itself, there’s no easy answer. That aforementioned lighthouse is manned because the Canadian government sees it as key to claiming sovereignty. This past year has seen U.S. Border Patrol agents taking the unprecedented step of boarding Canadian boats in the waters there, presumably on orders from the American government. Neither side wants the World Court at The Hague to rule on the dispute, fearing the outcome.
Meanwhile, hard-working fishermen from Maine and Canada are working essentially on top of each other, competing for a booming, desperately needed resource whose valuable abundance they know is only temporary as the warming waters of the Atlantic buffet their always variable fortunes. Says Abel, “Border disputes fester, especially when left untended. But, ultimately, climate change is going to force a solution if it continues to move north, as it has.”
IF YOU GO:
3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 13 at Strand Theatre, 345 Main St., Rockland, $7.50. rocklandstrand.com
2 and 7 p.m. Jan. 17 at Lincoln Theater, 2 Theater St., Damariscotta, $8. lcct.org
Friday-Sunday, Wednesday: “Monrovia, Indiana.” There’s no documentarian better than Frederick Wiseman, so that’s your cue to see his new film, a typically insightful and minutely observed portrait of a rural mid-American town.
Starts Friday: “On the Basis of Sex.” Felicity Jones stars as the young Ruth Bader Ginsburg in this biopic about the groundbreaking sex discrimination case she brought before the U.S. Supreme Court. The film is premiering on the 25th anniversary of Ginsburg being on that same court, by the way.