The Cod Wars

The value of cod to humans has never been seen more clearly than in the series of conflicts between Great Britain and Iceland in what became known as The Cod Wars – a title used to describe a series of 3 conflicts over fishing rights in the North Atlantic between Great Britain and Iceland that took place in the 1950s through to the 1970s.

Cod was found in abundance in the North Atlantic and was extensively fished by a variety of nations for hundreds of years. Great economic fortunes and trade networks were built around cod fisheries and places near

Iceland has historically relied very heavily on cod as an industry. Scientists in Iceland began to be concerned when long ranging ships from other countries fished for cod offshore. Although this practice was technically legal, it threatened cod stocks in Iceland.

In 1958, Iceland took action, extending an exclusive economic zone beyond its internationally recognized territorial waters and the cod wars began.

The First Cod War:

The first Cod War took place in 1958 and began on the 1st of September when Iceland passed a law that extended Iclandic fishing rights from 4 nautical miles to 12 nautical miles off Iceland’s coast. Up until the first of September 1958 British trawlers regulary fished for cod up to the 4 nautical mile exclusion zone.

Iceland argued that as they had little nautral resources and could barely sustain an agricultural industry due to environmental factors, they had the right to protect their fishing industry – an industry that accounted for 89.7% of Iceland’s total exports every year between 1881 and 1976. Iceland were further concerned as cod stocks were showing signs of diminishing and the average yield of cod had been dropping since the 1950s. Great Britain and other countries disagreed that over-exploitation of fishing in the waters was to blame for the diminishing cod populations, and were against strict catch quotas.

The Second Cod War:

On 1st September 1972 Iceland further extended their limits to a 50 mile radius in order to revive the failing fishery and protect their assets. Great Britain and West German trawlers instantly continued fishing within the restricted limits. This sparked the start of the second Cod War.

The second Cod War was notable as it marked the first time that the Icelandic Coast Guard actively used net cutters on trawlers fishing within the 50 mile restricted limit. The Icelandic Coast Guard would drag net-cutters behind their boats and across the nets of non-Icelandic trawlers to sever them (as seen in the diagram below):

Image: Method used for net-cutting

Image: A Net Cutter

Great Britain once again sent the Royal Navy to accompany British trawlers on their excursions into the exclusion zone.

An agreement was reached in 1973, resolving the second Icelandic Cod War when Britain agreed to limit fishing for Cod to designated areas within the 50 mile radius

The Third Cod War:

The Third Cod War took place between November 1975, and June 1976 when Iceland expanded its area of economic control over fishing from 50 miles to 200 miles.

The Third Cod was arguably the ‘hardest fought’ of the three Cod Wars with British fishing trawlers continually getting their nets cut by Icelandic vessels. The Icelandic position remained steadfast and pressed the point that the Icelandic economy depended on its fishing industry more than any other state in the world.

There were two notable incidents in the Third Cod War that escalated beyond the confrontations that had been seen in the previous cod wars.

The first occured on the 11th December 1975 when the Icelandic vessel V/s Þór was ordered to check on some unidentifed boats in restricted Icelandic waters. The vessels turned out to be 3 British ships, including one trawler, that were said to be seeking refuge from harsh weather further out at sea. The vessels were order by the Þór to vacate the waters – which they initially did. Icelandic and British reports of what happened next are (unsurprisingly) inconsistent.

Iceland claimed that just before leaving the restricted waters one of the British ships (the Star Aquarius ) turned off course and rammed the side of the Þór. A second British vessel (the Lloysdman) rammed the Þór a second time. The Þór fired a blank as a warning shot, but was rammed a third time and getting severely damaged in the process. A live round was then fired that struck one of the British ships causing the vessels to scatter and retreat.

The British maintained that the Þór attempted to board one of the British vessels and the Lloydsman moved forwards to protect the boat in question (the Star Aquarius). The British stated that the Þór collided with the Lloysdman as it broke away.

The incident was reported to the United Nations Security Council, who eventually declined to get involved.

The second incident occured in 1976 when there was a collision between British vessel HMS Andromeda and the Icelandic vessel, Þór. Both sides claimed that they were victims of a deliberate attack.

After months of such skirmishes, Iceland decided to take action and threatened to close its NATO base at Keflavik — an action that would have damaged NATO’s ability to defend the Atlantic from Soviet incursions. This was enough for NATO’s Secretary General Dr. Joseph Luns to take action. On June 2, 1976, he brokered an agreement between the two countries that limited the British fishing fleet to 24 ships and granted Iceland the right to halt and inspect British trawlers that entered the exclusion zone. Britain eventually agreed to keep it’s vessels outside Iceland’s 200 nautical mile exclusion zone.