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Serranilla Bank & Bajo Nuevo (Petrel Island)

Serrana Bank is not to be confused with Serranilla Bank. US sovereignty over two insular areas, Serranilla Bank and Bajo Nuevo (Petrel Island) is disputed. Serranilla Bank and Bajo Nuevo are in the Caribbean Sea, located approximately 180 miles southwest from the southern coast of Jamaica. Serranilla Bank is a roughly circular coral bank; on its southeast side are three small coral-and-sand keys, or low islands, the largest of which is a half mile in length. Bajo Nuevo, an oval-shaped coral bank situated northeast from Serranilla Bank, has two reefs; at both ends of each reef are small keys, the largest of which is about 300 by 50 yards in size.

The United States has long maintained claims to both Serranilla Bank and Bajo Nuevo under the Guano Islands Act. Both areas are claimed by Columbia and Jamaica. Serranilla Bank is also claimed by Honduras. Nicaragua has not claimed these areas by name, but has stated that it claims all islands and cays located on its continental shelf; however, there is no agreed maritime boundary between Nicaragua and Columbia, or between Nicaragua and Honduras, in the Western Caribbean. Currently, the United States conducts maritime law enforcement operations in and around Serranilla Bank and Bajo Nuevo consistent with US sovereignty claims.

The Bahama Archipelago consists of an arcuate chain of carbonate platforms. Average water depths on the platform-tops, such as the Great Bahama Bank (GBB), are typically 10 meters or less, with coral reef-rimmed margins, thick sediment accumulations, and the frequent occurrence of islands. There are, however, exceptions. For example, Cay Sal Bank (CSB), a little studied detached Bahamian carbonate platform with depths ranging from 30 to 7 m, is only slightly deeper than the GBB, but devoid of islands, lacks platform-margin coral reefs and holds little sediment on the platform-top; the platform is incipiently drowned. CSB is interesting as it is conspicuously larger (6000 sq. km) than other incipiently drowned platforms in the region, such as Serranilla Bank (1100 sq. km) and the Cat Island platform (1500 sq. km).

On October 28, 2008, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) confirmed the extinction of the Caribbean monk seal (Monachus tropicalis) and removed it from the federal list of endangered and threatened wildlife. This made it the first species of seal to go extinct as a direct result of human activities. It is remarkable how the Caribbean monk seal population, which likely numbered between 233,000 and 338,000 individuals among 13 major colonies, became extinct so rapidly following European colonization. Vulnerable due to their hauling-out behavior and abundant numbers, Caribbean monk seals were hunted as a readily available source of oil by European colonizers, and they were killed in lesser numbers for food. The last confirmed sighting was of a small colony on an isolated reef at Serranilla Bank (a group of small uninhabited islands in the southern Caribbean) in 1952. Many efforts were made to locate remaining seals in the wild, but their occurrence was never again confirmed, and all captive specimens died long ago.

On November 19, 2012, in regards to Nicaraguan claims to the islands the International Court of Justice (ICJ) found, unanimously, that the Republic of Colombia had sovereignty over Bajo Nuevo. On 6 December 2001, the Republic of Nicaragua filed an Application instituting proceedings against the Republic of Colombia in respect of a dispute concerning “a group of related legal issues subsisting” between the two States “concerning title to territory and maritime delimitation”. On 28 April 2003, Nicaragua filed its Memorial within the time-limit laid down by the Court. On 21 July 2003, Colombia filed preliminary objections to jurisdiction, leading to the suspension of the proceedings on the merits.

The Court held that the treaty signed in 1928 between Colombia and Nicaragua (in which Colombia recognized Nicaragua’s sovereignty over the Mosquito Coast and the Corn Islands, while Nicaragua recognized Colombia’s sovereignty over the islands of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina, and the maritime features forming part of the San Andrés Archipelago) had settled the issue of sovereignty over the islands of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina, that there was no extant legal dispute between the Parties on that question.

The Court founds that neither Nicaragua nor Colombia had established that it had title to the disputed maritime features by virtue of uti possidetis juris (a principle according to which, upon independence, new States inherit territories and boundaries of former colonial provinces), because nothing clearly indicates whether these features were attributed to the colonial provinces of Nicaragua or of Colombia. The Court therefore turns to the question whether sovereignty can be established on the basis of a State’s acts manifesting a display of authority on a given territory (effectivités). The Court finds that for many decades Colombia continuously and consistently acted à titre de souverain in respect of the maritime features in dispute. This exercise of sovereign authority was public and there is no evidence that it met with any protest from Nicaragua prior to 1969.

In its Judgment rendered on the merits of the case on 19 November 2012, the Court found that the territorial dispute between the Parties concerned sovereignty over the features situated in the Caribbean Sea — the Alburquerque Cays, the East-Southeast Cays, Roncador, Serrana, Quitasueño, Serranilla and Bajo Nuevo — which were all above water at high tide and which were therefore islands capable of appropriation. The Court noted, however, that Quitasueño comprised only a single, tiny island, known as QS 32, and a number of low-tide elevations (features above water at low tide but submerged at high tide). The Court then observed that, under the terms of the 1928 Treaty concerning Territorial Questions at Issue between Colombia and Nicaragua, Colombia not only had sovereignty over the islands of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina, but also over other islands, islets and reefs “forming part” of the San Andrés Archipelago.





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