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lighthouse on Navassa Island
The abandoned 162 foot-high lighthouse on Navassa Island. The lightkeeper's quarters appear in the background (Photo: Keith Pamper/Shedd Aquarium)

“No hay agua fresca” There’s no fresh water on this island! The Spaniards and Indians, under oar and sail, left their discovery of a tiny, waterless island in the West Indies and set their course toward Hispaniola. It was the year 1504 that Admiral Christopher Columbus, shipwrecked and stranded on the island of Jamaica, sent some soldiers and a few Indians in two canoes to Hispaniola for assistance. After two days, they discovered Navassa Island, which they called Navaza, but finding no potable water they continued on their way. Some believe that some of the men died and were buried there. Although claimed by Haiti, Navassa was essentially ignored, except for offering safe haven for pirates in the 1600’s, for the next 350 years.

In 1857, an American sailing ship landed on Navassa and the captain claimed the island for the United States under the Guano Act. The Guano act, passed by Congress in 1856, allowed the U.S. to take possession of islands containing guano deposits. The islands could be located anywhere, so long as they were not occupied and not within the jurisdiction of other governments. It also empowered the U.S. President to use military force to protect such interests. Haiti protested the annexation and claimed Navassa, but the United States rejected the claim.

Guano is the dried excrement of sea birds and bats. It is found principally on the coastal islands of Peru, Chile, Africa, and the West Indies. Guano contains about six percent phosphorus, nine percent nitrogen, and two percent potassium. In the early 19th century, bird guano from Navassa was highly prized as an agricultural fertilizer. It was mined by an American company, the Navassa Phosphate Company, located in Baltimore, Maryland, and was heavily traded by European and American traders. As the 19th century came to an end, guano became less important and became obsolete as artificial fertilizers were developed, at least in U.S. markets. The Spanish-American War of 1898 influenced the mining company to evacuate Navassa and guano mining for agricultural phosphate came to an end. By the end of the century, the guano mining company was defunct and the island deserted.

lighthouse on Navassa Island
Scientists hiking toward the abandoned lighthouse on Navassa Island (Photo: Keith Pamper/Shedd Aquarium)

The island became a hazard for navigation with the increased shipping traffic between Haiti and Cuba when the Panama Canal opened in 1914. The U.S. Lighthouse Service built a 162 foot-high lighthouse on the southern side of the island in 1917. A lighthouse keeper and two assistants lived there until an automatic beacon was installed in 1929. In 1996, the U.S. Coast Guard dismantled the light as Global Positioning Satellites made the light unnecessary to guide ships around Navassa. An inter-agency task force headed by the U.S. Department of State transferred the island to the U.S. Department of the Interior. By Secretary’s Order No. 3205 of January 16, 1997, the Department of Interior assumed control of Navassa and placed it under its Office of Insular Affairs. On April 22, 1999, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service assumed administrative responsibility for Navassa Island which became the Nation’s 517th National Wildlife Refuge (NWR).

Sand Island
Subsistence fishers from Haiti travel about five to six hours in the open ocean to reach Navassa Island (Photo: Keith Pamper/Shedd Aquarium)
eastern Island
Haitian subsistence fishers in Lulu Bay, Navassa island (Photo: Keith Pamper/Shedd Aquarium)

Access to Navassa is hazardous and visitors need permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Puerto Rico in order to enter its territorial waters or land.

Despite its remote location and status as a National Wildlife Refuge, subsistence fishers from Haiti travel about 60 miles (a 5-6 hour trip) in small open boats to fish, and often land on the island for short periods of time, where they may have been responsible for wildfires destructive to the forest habitat of migratory songbirds and nesting seabirds. After about a week, the transient Haitians carry their catches back to their villages in Haiti. This subsistence fishing by traps and hand line so far has had uncertain impact on the reef community structure, but qualitative observations suggest that the rapid depletion of fishery resources is underway (Miller et al., 2005). This represents the greatest management challenge for conserving Navassa’s coral reef resources.