Named Isla de Aves in Spanish, (meaning “Island of the Birds”) Aves Island , situated at 15°40'42"N and 63°36'47" W, lies west of the Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean, about 665 Km of the coast of Venezuela. A submerged fringing coral reef surrounds it.
Aves Island is small—only 0.5 by 0.2 kilometers (0.3 by 0.1 miles)—and its highest point stands just 4 meters (13 feet) above sea level. That is the normal extent of the island; storm surges occasionally submerge the entire islet, changing its size and rearranging its topography. In hurricanes, the island can be completely submerged. In 1980, Hurricane Allen split the island in two, but subsequent coral reef growth reunited the two halves.
Aves Island has very special ecological conditions that supports a few scrubby bushes. Due to its smallness: 550 m long and 40 to 120 m across and to its low profile only 3 m over sea level, it is swept by the sea during the periodical storms and hurricanes in the area. It has thus a very interesting fauna and flora. It provides a nesting site to green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) and, of course, birds. Because the abundant bird droppings, known as guano, could be used in fertilizer and gunpowder, guano miners worked on the island until they depleted the supply.
By far the most important nesting concentration for green turtles in the western Atlantic is in Tortuguero, Costa Rica. Nesting in the area has increased considerably since the 1970s, and nest count data from 1999-2003 suggest nesting by 17,400-37,300 females per year. The number of females nesting per year on beaches in the Yucatan, Aves Island, Galibi Reserve, and Isla Trindade number in the hundreds to low thousands, depending on the site.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), says that any country can claim a 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) around every island that it controls, usually splitting the differences with the EEZs of other countries that have territories within those limits.
But what is an island? How large does it have to be? UNCLOS is rather vague - it defines an island clearly enough in Article 121 as “a naturally formed area of land, surrounded by water, which is above water at high tide,” but this does not specify a minimum size. Two sections later, certain “naturally formed areas of land, surrounded by water, which remain above water at high tide,” are removed from the category: they are “rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone.”
There are practical difficulties - a pinnacle of stone barely extending above the high-tide line obviously does not qualify as an island, but what of a larger rock that could conceivably “sustain human habitation?” And what of an island too small, too arid, or too cold to sustain human habitation under normal conditions? What if those conditions were modified by human engineering?
There are many examples of relatively small, uninhabited features around or from which countries have established Exclusive Economic Zones. There is no requirement that the feature actually be inhabited. The United States has established an EEZ around Maro Reef in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, Palmyra Atoll, Kingman Reef and around Howland and Baker.
On March 17, 1835 Her Majesty’s ship Race Horse landed men on Aves Island. They found a party of Danes gathering eggs. The Danes collect them twice a day, and sold them at St. Thomas. A hut for egg collectors was found. A tomb was in the center of the island, the governor, a person at the head of a party of egg collectors, having died, was buried there.
In March 1854, the brig J.R.Dow under Captain N.P.Gibbs searched for guano deposits on the small island of Aves or Bird Island, and others in that portion of the Caribbean sea. Captain Gibbs found guano on Aves Island, and in June 1854 was fitted out with a force of twenty-five men, and took possession of the island in July 1854, fencing in that portion containing guano.
The island had remained uninhabited for 200 years, until the Americans took possession and built domicils. Captain Gibbs remained in quiet possession of the island, although visited by English, French, and Danish vessels of war, until about 13 December 1854, when he was visited by a small schooner under Venezuelan colors, claiming to be a national vessel of the government of Venezuela.
The ships' commander claimed the island in the name of his government, and landed troops with arms, and took possession of the island, hoisted the flag of Venezuela, and notified Captain Gibbs he could only remain on sufferance until such time as they saw fit to eject him. About the 21st of December, a second armed vessel of the Venezuelan government called there and landed twenty more troops.
Venezuela currently controls Aves, and claims that it is an island, potentially giving it a sizable extension of its EEZ in the central Caribbean Sea. Since 1978, Venezuela has maintained a permanently staffed scientific station on Aves built on large pilings and protected by a small naval contingent. As a result, the island might be said to sustain human habitation, but it certainly does not do so on the basis of its own resources.
The Venezuelan position has been challenged by several parties. The United Nations considers Aves a rock, denying Venezuela an EEZ for it. Until recently, Dominica also claimed Aves, with support from the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). In 2005, a group of eastern Caribbean countries denounced the Venezuelan claim to the waters around Aves.v Venezuela’s vice president José Vicente Rangel responded by asserting that, “Venezuela has been exercising sovereignty since about 1800. I think that the empire’s long arm is involved in this mobilization around Aves Island.” (“The empire,” in Venezuelan diplomatic code, refers to the United States.)
Rangel’s historical assertion was questionable, since American guano collectors occupied the island periodically in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The United States subsequently dropped all claims to the islet, and in 1978 acknowledged Venezuelan control over both Aves and its marine environs. The United States gave full effect to Aves Islands in the Maritime Boundary Treaty between the United States and Venezuela of March 28, 1978, 23 U.S.T. 3100; in doing so, the United States recognized Venezuela’s right to claim an EEZ from Aves Island.
The United States has established an EEZ around Maro Reef in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, Palmyra Atoll, Kingman Reef and around Howland and Baker. (60 Fed. Reg. 43825, 43828, 43829, Aug. 23, 1995; Department of Defense, Maritime Claims Reference Manual, page 664 and Table C1.T286. The treaty set the maritime division between the two countries halfway between Aves and the US Virgin Islands.
The Venezuelan position was further solidified in 2006 when Dominica dropped its claims. Dominica, not coincidently, soon afterward joined the ALBA alliance, and began to receive Venezuelan subsidies.
Venezuela’s position is slightly complicated by the fact that it has not signed the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. As such, its claims to an EEZ around Aves have not been formalized. (The United States has signed the convention, but has never ratified it; the US does, however, honor “almost all the provisions of the treaty.”)
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