BIRD ISLAND: TIME TO ACT
by
Griffin St.Hilaire

Bird Island is an integral part of the Commonwealth of Dominica and I am delighted to learn of Government’s intention to take steps to restore Dominica’s sovereignty over its territory.(1) The issue is urgent because not only has Venezuela claimed Bird Island but also it is now claiming half of the sea between Bird Island and Dominica.

LOCATION
Bird island is situated at latitude 15D 40M 18S N and longitude 63D 36M 59SW. Compare this to Dominica’s latitude 15D 40M N and longitude 61D 30M W and Venezuela’s 10D 50M N and 67D W. Bird Island is on the same latitude as Dominica, just 70 miles due west of the Cabrits in Portsmouth but more than 350 miles to the north, north-east of Venezuela’s north coast.

VENEZUELA’S CLAIM
Venezuela bases its claim to Bird Island on the 1865 award by Queen Isabella II of Spain in the dispute with the Netherlands. This case is dealt with in the book entitled “Boundaries, Possessions and Conflicts in South America” By Gordon Ireland, Harvard University Press 1938. There remains doubt of Venezuela’s rights to these islands (prior to 1865) and the possible confusion with Bird Islands, two small islands east of Bonaire a Dutch dependency, and just north of the coast of Venezuela.

On August 23 rd 1972 by National Decree No. 1069 Venezuela declared Bird Island a wildlife sanctuary. On July 26 1978 Venezuela passed a law establishing an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) around Bird Island. Since 1978 the Venezuelan Naval Force stands guard around Bird Island in what is called the Simon Bolivar Scientific-Military Base. (2) Venezuela considers Bird Island as one of its Federal Dependencies.

ECONOMIC VALUE
Bird Island has tremendous economic potentials.

It is home to several species of birds. Five different bird species are considered as residents of Bird Island, although only three of them nest on the island. The bigger numbers in population belong to Vera (Sterna fuscata) and Tinosa Gulls (Anous stolidus) and twenty- three (23) migratory species have been reported as occasional visitors to the island. Other species use the island as a resting place during their long migratory travels between seasons.

Bird Island is also an important nesting site for the Atlantic green turtle (chelonia mydas) or simple green turtle. The green turtles, killed for their meat, skin and shells are considered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as endangered. (3)

The island has great tourism potential. Two tour operators based in Venezuela already offer daytime trips to Bird Island. A trip to Bird Island by boat from the Cabrits would take less than forty-five minutes. There are Dominicans who still remember buying turtle’s meat brought to the Roseau market from Bird Island by Dominican fishermen.

Bird Island, due to it’s isolated location in the Caribbean Sea, is an excellent place for astronomers to observe various interesting phenomena. Picture perfect images of the Total Solar Eclipse on February 26, 1998 were photographed from Bird Island by a group of amateur astronomers. (4)

Amateur radio operators (Ham operators) have a special liking for the island.

Most importantly Bird Island and its surroundings are rich in oil, natural gas and hydrocarbon deposits. The Venezuelans are fully aware of this. (5)

VENEZUELA’S PLANS – 1. Stop the disappearance of Bird Island.
Bird Island is getting smaller and smaller as time passes and as hurricanes take their toll. Hurricane Allen on August 4, 1980 was particularly severe on Bird Island and reduced its size considerably. In 1968 two scientists carried out a study on Bird Island and concluded that the island would disappear in the year 2000. (6)

Although Bird Island did not disappear in 2000, the threat that it may eventually disappear still exists. If the island were to disappear then Venezuela’s claim to an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the area would become null and void since Venezuela is more than 350 miles away, a distance way beyond the limit of an EEZ as established by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Taking into consideration the possibility that Bird Island may disappear and the resulting adverse consequences to Venezuela’s self-imposed EEZ in the area, the Venezuelan Academy of Natural, Mathematical and Physical Sciences carried out a study to solve the problem of the reduction in the size of Bird island.

The original title of the published results of the study was “Proyecto para preservar el habitat de la tortuga chelonia mydas” (Project to preserve the green turtle’s habitat)

Interestingly, the results of this study were distributed to the following persons:

The distribution list and the first sentence of the study’s Executive Summary suggest that this is much more than preserving green turtles. Translated from Spanish this first sentence would read: “ As a result of the existence of Bird Island, Venezuela owns more than 150,000 km 2 of Exclusive Economic Zone and territorial sea with a rich potential in gas and hydrocarbon deposits.” (7)

The study suggest various natural and artificial means to halt the disappearance of Bird Island and list possible sources of funding for this project.

The possible sources of funding were listed as:

  1. Preserving the nesting site of the green turtle (Chelonia mydas) – Approach UNESCO and EU environmental and conservationist units.
  2. Preserve the habitat of various bird species – Approach various international conservation associations.
  3. And again of interest: To increase the surface area of Bird Island which would cement Venezuela’s sovereignty over an important extension of territorial waters the translation would read: “this part should be financed by PDVSA * (The Venezuelan National Oil Company) which is the direct beneficiary in case new gas and hydrocarbon deposits are discovered in this zone.”
PDVSA Exploration and Production by means of a document dated 2 February 1999 had previously expressed their (again translated from Spanish would read) “interest in this project of vital importance to ensure our sovereignty over a huge area of territorial sea” and promised “ The Academy of Natural, Mathematical and Physical Sciences can count on the assistance of PDVSA to implement this project.”

VENEZUELA’S PLANS – 2. Legitimise its EEZ around Bird Island
The establishment of an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) around Bird Island means that Venezuela has to agree maritime borders with Antigua and Barbuda, Montserrat, Dominica, St.Lucia, St.Kitts & Nevis, Martinique and Guadeloupe among others.

On March 28, 1978, using Bird Island as its reference, it agreed its maritime borders with the USA between Bird Island and Puerto Rico. On June 17, 1980 Venezuela agreed with France that longitude 62D 48M 52S W should be the maritime border between Bird Island and Guadeloupe and Martinique.

Venezuela now wants Dominica to accept this same latitude (62D 48M 52 W) as the border between Bird Island and Dominica. It hopes to use the argument that two major world powers the U.S.A and France have already agreed their maritime borders with Venezuela therefore Dominica should fall in line. If the Government of Dominica were to accept this proposal then we would have sovereignty to only 35 miles of sea west of Dominica.

The plan is to put diplomatic pressure on other Caribbean Governments to accept Venezuela’s sovereignty over Bird Island. A BBC report dated July 04 2001 quotes the Venezuelan Foreign Minister Luis Alfonso Davila as saying that his government will call the ambassadors of some Caribbean countries to request their support for his countries sovereignty over Bird Island. (8)

DIPLOMATIC OFFENSIVE REQUIRED The Government of Dominica must now seize the diplomatic initiative to reinstate Dominica’s sovereignty over Bird Island.

The Venezuelan Ambassador to Dominica should be summoned and be told in diplomatic language that the Commonwealth of Dominica does not recognise Venezuela’s sovereignty over Bird Island nor does it recognise Venezuela’s Exclusive Economic Zone imposed around the island in 1978.

The necessary legal framework should be put in place to incorporate Bird Island as a sovereign part of the Commonwealth of Dominica.

A technical team should be put together to negotiate with Venezuela the smooth transfer of Bird Island to Dominica.

Given Bird Island’s vast economic potential, it is unrealistic to expect Venezuela to readily abandon its claim. The Government of Dominica should therefore be prepared to take its case of sovereignty over Bird Island to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea or to the International Court of Justice for arbitration.

Venezuela’s EEZ around bird island is in contravention of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea which clearly states that “The territorial sea, Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and continental shelf of islands would be determined in accordance with rules applicable to land territory, but rocks which could not sustain human habitation or economic life would have no economic zone or continental shelf.” Put simply, Dominica, as an inhabited island has the right to an EEZ but Bird Island, even if we accept Venezuela’s claim to it, has no right to an EEZ because it is an uninhabited sandbank.

The Governments of Antigua and Barbuda and St.Lucia have already lodged complains with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea on this matter. (9)

Dominica should co-ordinate with other Caribbean States, its drive to regain sovereignty over it territorial waters. Let us remember that Venezuela has not been a particularly good Caribbean neighbour. Examine the following:

  1. Since the coming to power of the current President, Venezuela has revitalised its claim to over 150,000 km 2 of land west of the Essequibo River in Guyana.
  2. The Venezuelan government wants a share of the revenue that the Government of Trinidad and Tobago derives from the BP-Amoco discovery at the Manaquin 1 well, claiming that the well reserve crosses both borders,
  3. The Government of Venezuela objected to the granting of concessions by the government of Grenada to a transnational company claiming that the concessions were granted within its territorial waters and
  4. The establishment of on EEZ around Bird Island has caused serious problems to the territorial integrity of several OECS States, Dominica included.
CONCLUSION
At a time of severe economic difficulties faced by our country we should make full use of the limited resources with which we have been blessed. Bits and pieces of aid granted to us over the years should not side-track us. Nothing prevents the Government of Dominica from granting offshore concessions to Exxon-Mobile, Shell or BP to explore for oil, natural gas and hydrocarbons, which exist within our territorial waters. We should act now.


  1. July 11, 2001. Roseau, Dominica, CANA – Dominica is exploring its case in the ownership of an island 70 miles west of the mainland, which Venezuela is claiming. Prime Minister Pierre Charles told a news conference Monday, that Venezuela’s claim of sovereignty over Aves Island, known to Dominicans as Bird Island will have implications not just for Dominica but for other Caribbean islands. “Antigua and St.kitts have expressed particular concern over the implications to their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) he said.
  2. Article courtesy of SUBVITUR Actividades Acuaticas C.A at www.mensanna.com.ve/english/tu_azul/aves2.htm.
  3. Article entitled “Atlantic green turtle (chelonia mydas) at www.cdessler.tripod.com/sea_turtle/atlgrn.htlm
  4. John Schroer’s Amateur Astrology Home Page. www.home.fuse.net/jschroer/solar.htm
  5. See Executive Summary of “Proyecto para preservar el habitat de la tortuga chelonia mydas” by the Academia de Ciencias Fisicas, Matematicas y Naturales” published at http://www.academiasnacionales.gov.ve/avespropuesta.htm.
  6. Maloney N.J, Schubert C “La Isla de Aves, una isla que desaparecera” (Bird Island, an island that will disappear) Acta Cientifica Venezolana v. 19: 152-154.
  7. “Proyecto para preservar el habitat de la tortuga chelonia mydas” by the Academia de Ciencias Fisicas, Matematicas y Naturales” published at www.academiasnacionales.gov.ve/avespropuesta.htm.
  8. Wednesday, 4 July 2001, 06:21 GMT 07:21 UK. “Venezuela reaffirms rights over Aves Island”. BBC World Service.
  9. Law of the Sea Bulletin 35, 1997.
UP
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© Griffin St.Hilaire: Re-publication with author's permission only.