Cays go to Honduras

Part of Cayman’s history

The International Court of Justice (World Court) has ruled that Honduras will assume ownership of four Cays that were former hunting grounds of Caymanians.

In a unanimous ruling, the 15-member panel decided that Savanna Cay, Bobel Cay, Port Royal Cay and South Cay should be handed over to Honduras rather than Nicaragua.

Jamaica attended the proceeding but made no claim and Cayman was not invited, nor was it represented by the UK Government, which has responsibility for external affairs of the Cayman Islands.

‘Those Cays were always regarded as being high seas,’ recalls Captain Paul Hurlston who spent 16 weeks ranging in the area on the schooner Antaris. ‘We were they only people out there.’

Gleason Ebanks who set nets and fished around the Cays from the age of 14 recalls that ‘the Nicaraguans and Hondurans never came that far out.’

Ebanks stopped going down to the Cays in 1979, prior to that he would head down every two weeks on the boat the Cayman Pilot.

Mr. Warren Connolly of East End said that his family’s schooners, which included the Radium, Hustler, Mona and Marika would head down to the Moskito Cays and they would scale fish and set nets for turtle around the upper Cays that were recently assigned to Honduras. ‘That was our stable existence.’

The World Court ruled that ‘neither country – Honduras nor Nicaragua) – was able to provide evidence that the islands were attributed to them or that they had title, nor were they able to show that they had exercised administrative control of the islands during the colonial period.’ In the end, the decision to give the Islands to Honduras was based on the fact that they had exercised sufficient authority over the last 20 years.

It is seems odd that that Cayman was not invited to make a claim. It wasn’t until relatively recently that the potential for oil and gas revenues in region was realised that the cays became the subject of dispute between Nicaragua and Honduras.

There is a large body of evidence that shows that Caymanians frequented the area and took advantage of the natural resources of the cays for centuries. Caymanians went to these offshore banks, cays and islands. They built huts on them; there are instances of Caymanians even being buried there.

They certainly went there to hunt for turtles, sharks for the leather industry, as well as scale fish and bird eggs. Caymanians also salvaged wrecks that were lost and abandoned in the area.

The islands, cays and offshore banks were the lifeblood and the main source of income for the people of the Cayman Islands for hundreds of years and it is probable that the names attached to the cays, for example Savanna Cay and South Cay were even named by Caymanians.

This possibility seems much more likely than their being named by either Spanish speaking Honduras or Nicaragua; the names of the Islands are clearly English.

The Cayman Islands does not look out for its own external affairs. It has delegated this responsibility to the United Kingdom and there is some evidence to suggest the UK Government is not looking out for Cayman’s external interests as vigorously as one might hope.

In the late 1960s Governor Athel Long led a delegation of Caymanians to renew the Turtle Treaty with Nicaragua (Treaty Between The United Kingdom and Nicaragua Regulating the Turtle fishing industry in the Territorial waters of Nicaragua as regards fishing vessels belonging to the Cayman Islanders, signed in Managua May 16, 1916).

Mr. Willie Farrington and Ernest Panton were part of the delegation.

The Treaty specifically refers to Caymanians being able to fish for turtle on the high seas and they were only charged duty for turtles caught within the territorial waters, which typically extends out a maximum of 12 miles (as set out in the Law of the Sea).

Former Governor Long is now 88 years old but still recalls the trip to Nicaragua.

‘We stayed in a hotel in Managua run by a Caymanian and we brought a box of Jamaican cigars as a gift. It was very difficult to see anyone above a very lowly rank. We met with a member of staff from the British ambassador’s office but he didn’t seem to be very much on the ball. Frankly, he seemed to be pretty well pissed. He kept missing the glass when he was pouring himself a whiskey.

‘It was that level of connection, no one seemed to know what was what; we never saw anybody of top seniority.’

The result of the trip was, not surprisingly, that the treaty was not extended.

Cayman’s exclusive economic zone has not yet been fully settled by the UK Government. This exclusive economic zone would give Cayman the right to exploit all the natural resources in a 200 mile circle radiating out from, what is referred to as the continental shelf of the Cayman Islands, or until this arc runs into a competing claim from another country.

For example part of this zone has been defined at least to the West of Cayman. The designation of the boundary line resulted in the Rosario and Misteriosa Banks being given to Honduras.

A limit of just 10 Caymanian commercial fishing vessels are permitted to access these areas free of charge and they are restricted to catching just snapper and grouper and the total combined catch for all the boats is 25 metric tons per annum. To put that total in perspective, one commercial boat on a two week trip could catch 25,000 pounds of fish or about half of the entire annual limit assigned to Cayman. It is a measly amount.

Even more concerning is the possibility that Cayman may end up losing the Pickle Bank. The UK Government and Cuba have not yet got around to defining the boundary of the exclusive economic zone to the north of Cayman; however a chart in the office of Chief Secretary Mr. Kearney Gomez sets out some preliminary designations and the bank is listed as Banco Pickle.

This seems to infer that there may be a Spanish claim to this bank, despite the fact that it is located closer to the Sister Islands than it is to Cuba.

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