- - Thursday, June 23, 2011

In an era when government regulation has seeped into seemingly every aspect of modern life — from the lead content of decorative rhinestones to the size of your septic system — one area of the Maine coast is apparently too remote even for the long tentacles of the Nanny State.

Known as the Bold Coast for its rugged landscape — a head-on collision of granite cliffs and icy-cold seas — the name could just as easily refer to some of the people who call it home.

“We’re so remote, we’ve stayed that way — very self-reliant and reliant on the land, trying to scratch out a living,” said Robert Cates, a fisherman.

His hometown of Cutler, a fishing community of about 500 residents, is huddled around one of the last true harbors before Canada.

Northeast of the harbor, the Bold Coast wilderness boasts 13,500 acres of bushy barrens, spongy bogs, and dense carpets of spruce and fir a third the size of Maine’s Acadia National Park. Unlike the coves and barrier islands that shelter most of maritime Maine, the naked coast has been carved into boulder-strewn beaches and rock bluffs by seas with the lowest and highest tides in the world. Stretching for about 20 miles, the Bold Coast ends in Lubec, the easternmost town in the United States.

“A lot of people from away see this as the end of America,” Lubec native Bob Peacock said. “We see this as the beginning of America.”

In fact, just off the Bold Coast was the first naval battle of the Revolutionary War, where Colonists seized the British warship Margaretta in 1775, an action known as “Lexington of the Sea.”

Conflicts along the U.S.-Canadian border persist to this day. “There’s a saying here: ‘You know what we call the border when it’s foggy?’ ” Mr. Peacock said. “Opportunity.”

GPS may have cleared some of the fog, but modern technology can go only so far.

Around the Machias Seal Island is the Gray Zone, so called because the boundary between U.S. and Canadian waters remains disputed. Even a 1981 ruling by the International Court of Justice on U.S.-Canada coastal borders overlooked it.

“It’s just one area of the world that doesn’t matter,” Mr. Peacock said.

Instead, lobstermen on either side fish the area according to rules of their own making — or breaking, as the case may be. “This has nothing to do with the government — nothing,” Mr. Peacock said.

For years, a system of benign neglect was in place: Canadians stayed away until their lobster season started in June. By then, the Maine fishermen already had their run of the place, Mr. Cates said. But now, he said, his Canadian counterparts have found a loophole: Their own waters may be off limits until June, but who can keep them out of the Gray Zone?

Mr. Cates said skirmishes between the two sides are inevitable and are carried out in the way the lobstermen know best — by sabotaging each other’s traps. Mr. Cates worries that an all-out trap war could erupt: “If you got into a war, some kind of trap-cutting war, it would be so expensive it could really ruin a person.”

Wrangling over the border lends common cause to communities that are as wary of out-of-towners fishing in their waters as they are of foreigners.

State law does not bar anyone with a valid license from setting their lobster traps off the shores of a neighboring community, but the reality is something else.

“Historically, along the Maine coast there is sort of an unwritten code of conduct,” said Andrew Patterson, who runs boat tours out of Cutler and holds one of those licenses.

That customary code carries penalties for violators. For a first offense: an open trap door that releases that week’s catch. Second offense: a hole in the netting of the trap or some other minor damage. Three strikes, and your trap is gone. For obvious reasons — like a lack of eyewitnesses — there is little local game wardens can do, Mr. Patterson said.

“That’s been that way forever,” Mr. Cates said. “Even our fathers and grandfathers established that line.”

Local fishermen may bristle when state and federal authorities flex the long arm of regulation, but government is otherwise on the retreat. Cutler has no full-time police or fire department, and the nearest traffic light is a one-hour drive away. Its neighbor, Trescott, eliminated its municipal government decades ago and subsided into Maine’s 10 million-acre Unorganized Territory.

The same goes for state and federal government entities. In the late 1970s, the U.S. Coast Guard relinquished control over the Little River Lighthouse in Cutler and sought a new federal or state owner. No takers. By 2000, the U.S. Navy had abandoned its base on Cutler. The base was turned over to a developer but remains a ghost town with a convenience store as its lone retail business. The Navy still remotely controls a very low frequency transmitter on the site.

The Bold Coast may be a vestige of rugged individualism, but it’s not exactly every man for himself. “There is a closeness to the people here,” Mr. Cates said. “They have to help each other out.”

As a child, his son was struck by a car and was hospitalized for weeks. Children went around at Halloween with donation bags, and fellow fishermen hauled his traps, turning the lobsters in his name.

“This town really pulled together,” Mr. Cates said.

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