Marshall Islands Correspondent

MAJURO, Marshall Islands — Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority staff member Benedict Yamamura confirmed that in late April, the Marshall Islands submitted to the United Nations 450 pages of geographical coordinates, treaty agreements and 25 charts that together officially declare the baselines and the outer limits of all maritime zones under the national jurisdiction of the Marshall Islands — and included in this declaration is Wake Island.

The United States claims Wake Island in the North Pacific as its territory. But the Marshall Islands has put a competing claim on record at the United Nations, reaffirming that it considers the island home territory.

The Marshall Islands has ties to Wake — which is known as “Eneen Kio” in Marshallese language — that predate U.S. claims possibly by centuries. “Oral traditions claim that the Marshallese knew of Wake Atoll prior to contact with European navigators,” writes Micronesia history and heritage expert Dirk Spennemann. “The Marshallese name for the atoll was Eneen-Kio or Ane-en Kio, ‘Island of the kio flower.’”

Technical staff from the Pacific Community, or the SPC, and the Australian government worked with the Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority to draw the marine baselines, including drafting legislation detailing the new marine boundaries that was adopted by the parliament in March. People involved in the boundary mapping project called it a “major milestone in ocean resource management and international relations.”

The inclusion of Wake — and waters 200 miles out from land — dramatically increases the Marshall Islands already substantial exclusive economic zone.

But the U.S. government is expected to contest this declaration of authority over Wake. “The State Department is aware of the Marshall Islands’ UN filing and is in the preliminary stages of getting technical experts together from both countries to discuss the maritime boundary,” said U.S. Ambassador to the Marshall Islands Thomas Armbruster.

Wake was formally claimed by the United States in 1899 as a site for a cable station and was put under U.S. Naval administration in 1934. It is located about 2,300 miles west of Hawaii. Since the 1960s, Wake, an unincorporated territory of the U.S., has been administered by the U.S. Air Force. The National Weather Service and the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration operate research stations there.

Wake has an important place in the history of the Marshall Islands. “The atoll was a source of feathers and plumes of seabirds (for Marshallese),” wrote Spennemann in one of a number of articles he has published on the history of the Marshalls. “Prized were the wing bones of albatross, from which tattooing chisels could be made. In addition, the rare kio flower grew on the atoll. Bringing these items to the home atolls implied that the navigators had been able to complete the feat of finding the atoll using traditional navigation skills of stars, wave patterns and other ocean markers.”

Spennemann, who worked as the historic preservation officer in the Marshall Islands in the early 1990s, is a professor in culture heritage management at the Charles Sturt University in Australia. “Like the Marshallese visits to the atolls of Bikar and Bokak, the voyages to Wake occurred once a year or even less frequently,” Spennemann said. “It is thus not surprising that none of the Europeans visiting or landing on Eneen-Kio mention the presence of Marshallese or any signs of permanent or temporary human habitation on this atoll.”

In addition to the SPC and the Australian government, others involved in completing the marine boundary mapping project included the Forum Fisheries Agency, GRID-Arendal, the University of Sydney, the Commonwealth Secretariat and the nonprofit organization Independent Diplomat, which is based in New York. mbj