Snake Island, also known as Serpent Island (Острів Зміїний, Ostriv Zmiinyi; Insula şerpilor), lies in the Black Sea off the coasts of Romania and Ukraine. The island is part of the Kiliya Raion (district) of Odessa Oblast, Ukraine. The continental shelf around Snake Island is a subject of the ongoing Romania-initiated protracted litigation before the International Court of Justice (see below).
The island is a limestone formation located 35 km from the coast, east of the mouth of the Danube River. The island's coordinates are . The island is X-shaped, 662 meters by 440 meters, covering an area of 0.17 km². The highest point is 41 m above sea level.
The nearest coast location to the Snake Island is Kubanskyi Island on the Ukrainian part of the Danube Delta, located between Bystroe Channel and Vostochnoe Channel. The closest Romanian coast city, Sulina is 45 km away. The closest Ukrainian city, Vylkove is 50 km away.
The island is currently demilitarized and is under rapid development. In accordance with 1997 Treaty between Romania and Ukraine, the Ukrainian authorities withdrew an army radio division, demolished a military radar, and transferred all other infrastructure to civilians.
In addition to a helicopter platform, in 2002 a pier has been built for ships with up to 8 meter draught, and harbor construction is underway. The island is supplied with navigation equipment, including a 150-year old lighthouse. Electric power is provided by a dual wind/diesel power station. The island also has such civil infrastructure as a post office, a bank branch (of the Ukrainian bank "Aval"), a first-aid station, satellite television, a phone network, a cell phone tower, and an Internet link.
The Snake Island Lighthouse was built in the summer of 1843 by the Black Sea Fleet of the Russian Empire. The lighthouse is an octahedral-shaped building, 12 meters tall, located at the highest point of the island, 40 meters above the sea level. The lighthouse is adjacent to a housing building.
As lighthouse technology progressed, in 1860 new lighthouse lamps were bought from England, and one of them was installed in Snake Island Lighthouse in 1862. In the early 1890s a new kerosene lamp was installed, with lamp rotating equipment and flat lenses. It improved the lighthouse visibility to up to 20 miles.
The lighthouse was heavily damaged during World War II by Soviet aviation and German retreating forces. It was restored at the end of 1944 by the Odessa military radio detachment. In 1949 it was further reconstructed and equipped by the Black Sea Fleet. The lighthouse was further upgraded in 1975 and 1984. In 1988 a new radio beacon "KPM-300" was installed with radio signal range of 150 miles.
The lighthouse is listed as UKR 050 by ARLHS, EU-182 by IOTA, and BS-07 by UIA.
According to an epitome of the lost Trojan War epic of Arctinus of Miletus, the remains of Achilles and Patroclus were brought to this island by Thetis, to be put in a sanctuary. Ruins believed to be of a square temple dedicated to Achilles, 30 meters to a side, were discovered by Captain Kritzikly in 1823. Ovid, who was banished to Tomis, mentions the island; so do Ptolemy and Strabo. The island is described in Pliny's Natural History, IV.27.1.
In 1877, following the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, the Ottoman Empire gave the island and Northern Dobrudzha region, as a reimbursement for the Russian annexation of Romania's southern Bessarabia region.
The Paris Peace Treaties of 1947 between the protagonists of World War II ceded Northern Bukovina, the Hertza region, Budjak, and Bessarabia to the USSR but made no mention of the mouths of the Danube and Snake Island.
Until 1948, Snake Island was considered part of the Romanian coastal city of Sulina. In 1948, the Soviets forced the Romanian side (occupied by Soviet troops) to accept the "transfer" of Snake Island to the USSR, as well as to accept to move the Romanian border in the Danube Delta towards the west, in favour of the USSR (resulting in the annexation of Limba Island by the USSR). Romania has strongly disputed the validity of this "treaty", since it was never ratified by any of the two countries, which would make the Limba and Snake islands de jure Romanian territory.
The Soviet Union's possession of Snake Islands was confirmed in the Treaty between the Government of the People's Republic of Romania and the Government of the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics on the Romanian-Soviet State Border Regime, Collaboration and Mutual Assistance on Border Matters, signed in Bucharest on February 27, 1961.
Between 1967 and 1987, the USSR and Romanian side were negotiating the delimitation of the continental shelf. The Romanian side refused to accept a Russian offer of 4000 km² out of 6000 km² around the island in 1987.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine inherited control over the island. A number of Romanian parties and organizations consistently claimed it should be included in its territory. According to the Romanian side, in the peace treaties of 1918 and 1920 (after WWI), the isle was considered part of Romania, and it was not mentioned in the 1947 border-changing treaty between Romania and the Soviet Union.
In 1997, Romania and Ukraine signed a treaty in which both states "reaffirm that the existing border between them is inviolable and therefore, they shall refrain, now and in future, from any attempt against the border, as well as from any demand, or act of, seizure and usurpation of part or all the territory of the Contracting Party". Romania agreed with the terms of the treaty, as it opened for the country a door to NATO. However, both sides have agreed that if no resolution on maritime borders can be reached within two years, then either side can go to the International Court of Justice to seek a final ruling.
The Romanian side claims that Ukraine is developing the isle in order to prove its island status (as contrary to a cliff).
On 16 September 2004 the Romanian side brought a case against Ukraine to the International Court of Justice in a dispute concerning the maritime boundary between the two States in the Black Sea, claiming that the island has no socio-economic significance. Ukraine had to respond by 19 May 2006.
Oil (10 million tonnes) and natural gas deposits (1 billion m³) were discovered under the seabed nearby. The natural resources are not significant though, as they can be exhausted in 2-3 years of development.
BP and Royal Dutch/Shell signed prospect contracts with Ukraine, while Total with Romania. Austrian OMV (the owner of Romania's largest oil company, Petrom) also signed a contract with Naftogaz Ukrainy and Chornomornaftogaz to jointly participate to an auction for a concession of the area.
Presuming that the ICJ finds its jurisdiction in this dispute, the following picture may arise. In general, the islands are “special” or “relevant” circumstances to be considered in each act of delimitation effected either by states themselves or with the help of a third party, such as the ICJ, and depending on the peculiarity of a given situation, considerations of equity may lead to giving islands full, partial or even no effect in determining entitlement to maritime areas.
However, in the practice of states even rocks are often given effect during maritime delimitation, leaving alone fully-fledged islands. For example, Aves Island was given full effect in the US/Venezuela Maritime Boundary Agreement despite its very small size and lack of habitation. Furthermore, most states do not distinguish the islands from LOSC Art. 121(3) “rocks” and claim the shelf and the EEZ for all their rocks and islands. Examples would include the UK (with regard to Rockall Island), Japan (with regard to Okinotorishima), the US (with regard to Hawaiian and many other uninhabited islands along the equator), France (with regard to Clipperton and other islands), Norway (with regard to Jan Mayen), Yemen, Nicaragua, Sri Lanka etc.
The practice of international courts, tribunals and other third-party dispute settlement bodies is less uniform. On the one hand, even alleged Art.121(3) “rocks” are taken into account in delimiting the maritime boundaries. On the other hand, even though the islands are not Art.121(3) “rocks”, they may well be either ignored or substantially discounted (enclaved or eliminated) if their use would have an inequitable distorting effect in light of their size and location . Even if such islands are not discounted their actual influence on the delimitation is often minimal. All these decisions cannot, however, be said to have reached that level of uniformity in order to become a rule of law.
Although there have as well been some other instances where the issue, similar to that between Ukraine and Romania, was directly or implicitly involved , there has not been so far any direct third-party international review of whether a particular feature is LOSC Art.121(3) “rock” or is Art.121(2) “island”. Therefore, the Romanian-Ukrainian dispute may be the first case where the question of whether or not the island constitutes a “rock” with all the following implications under LOSC Art. 121(3) after its adoption will be examined by the main international adjudicative forum.
The decision of the ICJ in this case is not, therefore, that easy to predict. Even if the ICJ declares Snake Island to be an “island”, in delimiting the maritime zones, the ICJ may take into account “special” or “relevant” circumstances (the fact that the Black Sea is the “enclosed or semi-enclosed sea” which would make the maritime delimitation more difficult, the presence of the Serpents’ island, its location, significance etc.) and give the Serpents’ Island either full, or some, or none effect at all.