The Cod Wars

Background to the Cod Wars

The cod wars were a series of disputes between Britain and Iceland running from the 1950s to the 1970s over the rights to fish in Icelandic waters. Although it was never a war in the conventional sense of the word (the massive and well-equipped Royal Navy would have easily defeated the tiny Icelandic Navy), the peak of the Cod Wars saw thirty seven Royal Navy warships mobilised to protect British trawlers fishing in the disputed territory. While the wars were eventually settled through diplomatic means there was conflict between British naval vessels and Icelandic ships out at sea. The Cod Wars showed how seriously nations took their fishing rights, and the lengths they would go to in order to access rich fishing grounds.

HMS Scylla collides with Odinn
The Royal Navy’s 2,500 ton Leander-class frigate HMS Scylla collides with the Icelandic vessel ICGV Odinn in the third and final Cod War.

The First Cod War

The first Cod War took place in autumn 1958 and was caused by a dispute over who could fish in the seas surrounding Iceland. In the late 1950s a country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) – the area of sea that a country controlled and could fish in exclusively – only extended four miles out to sea from a country’s coastline. British trawlers could therefore fish very close to Iceland and take advantage of the fertile fishing grounds that surrounded the country. Iceland – worried that foreign vessels were overexploiting their fisheries – brought in a new law that extended their EEZ to twelve miles. Britain was not happy and chose to ignore this new limit and continued to fish up to the original four-mile limit. The situation escalated when Britain sent warships to protect its trawlers fishing in the disputed areas. This was seen as a David versus Goliath conflict, as Britain had, at that time, the second most powerful navy in the world (after the USA), while Iceland had little more than patrol boats and militarised coast guard vessels to protect itself. A number of incidents took place including Icelandic patrol boats firing across the bows of British trawlers in an effort to force them to leave the new zone, and Britain threatening to sink any Icelandic vessels that attacked British trawlers. Eventually, Britain accepted that it had no right to stop Iceland extending the EEZ to twelve miles and backed down. There was also an agreement that future conflicts would be settled at the International Court of Justice to avoid further conflict.

The Second Cod War

Net Cutter
A diagram showing how net cutters are used to sever a trawler’s net.

The second cod war took place in September 1972 when Iceland ignored the agreement about disputes being settled via diplomatic means and unilaterally extended its EEZ from twelve to fifty miles. Again Britain refused to recognise this new limit leading to Iceland using its patrol boats to chase British and West German trawlers out of its newly declared exclusive zone. The Icelandic coast guard then started using net-cutters to destroy the trawling nets of the British fishing vessels that ventured inside the zone. Soon the Royal Navy was sent to protect the British trawlers. Confrontations took place for over a year with British trawlers continuing to have their nets cut by Icelandic ships and Royal Navy ships being rammed by Icelandic coast guard boats.

A serious incident took place in March 1973 when the British trawler Brucella refused to follow directions of the patrol boat Arvakurto leave the EEZ. Crew from the Icelandic vessel then appeared on deck and began firing rifles at the Brucella, damaging her bridge and lifeboats. The trawler then followed the Icelander’s instructions to leave the EEZ. No one was injured in the incident. But worse was to come in July of the following year. The trawler C.S. Forester, one of the biggest trawlers in the British commercial fleet, was spotted fishing within the twelve-mile limit by the Icelandic patrol boat V/S ÞórI. The British vessel was pursued for over one hundred miles and then shelled with non-explosive ammunition by the Icelandic vessel. At least two shells hit causing damage to the ship. The C.S. Forester was eventually boarded and towed to an Icelandic port where it was impounded and the skipped was jailed for thirty days. He was eventually released when the C.S. Forester’s owners paid £2,300 and a further £26,500 for the release of the trawler. Eventually, a breakthrough was reached when it was agreed British trawlers could fish within certain specified areas in the fifty-mile zone, as long as Britain took no more than 130,000 tons of cod per year. However, this agreement was only valid for two years, and expired on 13 November 1975.

The Third, and Final, Cod War

As soon as this agreement expired the third cod war began. In late 1975 Iceland increased the EEZ limit again, this time to 200 miles. Britain, along with other European nations, were furious, arguing that although there was broad agreement that a 200-mile limit would be brought in throughout the world, this agreement was still years away and Iceland had no right to impose such a limit so soon. This Cod War led to some of the most heated confrontations of the three wars. One of the most contentious episodes involved the Icelandic patrol boat Þór and two British trawlers and a support ship. British and Icelandic accounts differ about exactly what happened, but what is clear is that Þór was rammed by British vessels to the extent that it began to sink and in an attempt to defend itself fired blank, and then live ammunition at the British ships. Some of the live rounds struck a British trawler, the Star Aquarius although no injuries and only minor damage resulted.

USS Tacoma
Iceland raised the stakes by attempting to procure US Asheville-class gunboats, such as the USS Tacoma, pictured. These vessels were heavily armed with four machine guns, a 40mm cannon and could be configured to launch surface-to-surface missiles.

Another serious incident took place when another Iceland patrol boat, the Týr, tried to cut the nets of a British trawler. HMS Falmouth, a 2800 ton Rothesay-class frigate intervened to protect the trawler. HMS Falmouth rammed the Týr which continued, and eventually succeeded in cutting the trawler’s nets. This caused HMS Falmouth to ram the Týr a second time, nearly capsizing the vessel. The captain of the Týr ordered his men to man the ship’s guns. A stand-off developed between the two ships which only ended when the heavily damaged Týr was forced to limp back to port due to the damage it had sustained when it was rammed for the second time. In total there were fifty-five incidents of Royal Navy vessels ramming Icelandic boats during the third Cod War. This presented a problem for the Royal Navy as the frigates it was using were designed for launching missiles at distant enemy ships or hunting enemy submarines in the open ocean. They were ill-suited to the close in maneuvering and ramming Icelandic boats which they were required to perform in the third Cod War, and the frequency with which they were used to ram Icelandic vessels was beginning to cause significant damage to a number of Royal Navy frigates. By the end of the third Cod War the Royal Navy was even strengthening the hulls of frigates before they were sent to Iceland in order to limit the damage that was caused to the vessels when they rammed and Icelandic boats.

The situation escalated again when it was revealed that the Icelandic justice minister Ólafur Jóhannesson was attempting to upgrade Icelandic naval power by loaning a number of powerful Asheville-class gunboats from the US, or purchasing Mirka-class frigates from Russia. Although this was probably a ploy, and America turned down Iceland’s request outright, it had the desired effect of showing that Iceland had no intention of backing down and was willing to take on the Royal Navy head on.

But Iceland still had their ace card to play. A US-manned NATO naval air base was located on the Reykjanes peninsula, near the town of Keflavík in western Iceland. This base housed the US 85th Air Group, radar stations and anti-submarine warfare units as well as serving as a base for US search and rescue units. As the third cod war was taking place at the height of the Cold War this naval air station was crucial for the Americans to track and monitor Soviet submarine and airplane movements through the GIUK (Greenland, Iceland, United Kingdom) gap – a key choke point for Soviet forces gaining access to the open Atlantic and US territorial waters.

The GIUK gap was of crucial importance in the third cod war, and Iceland’s threat to close the NATO base located there forced Britain to give in to Iceland’s demands.

Without this base America would be blind to what was happening in huge areas of the north Atlantic, as well as losing the deterrent factor of having forces amassed relatively close to the USSR. Believing that Iceland was serious about closing the air base America began putting huge pressure on Britain to comply with Iceland’s extended EEZ. Talks to end the Cod Wars took place in Oslo in spring 1976, with the threat to close the NATO base placing pressure on Britain to end the dispute. An agreement was eventually reached on May 28th. A maximum of twenty-four British trawlers were allowed to fish within the new EEZ as long as their catch was limited to 50,000 tons. However, this agreement only lasted for six months, after which Britain agreed that it had no right to fish inside the zone.

Following Events

Icelandic EEZ
Diagram showing the increasing size of Iceland’s EEZ as the three cod wars progressed.

Although it was never a war in the conventional sense, the Cod Wars nonetheless showed how close two countries would come to combat over the issue of fishing rights. In the end Iceland were successful in extending their EEZ massively, and today the 200-mile limit is accepted internationally. Britain’s reason for challenging Iceland’s ever increasing EEZ was perfectly logical – British trawlers relied on catching cod in the plentiful waters of Iceland, and without this fish many ports built on the fishing industry would struggle. However, Iceland were always going to eventually win international backing to extend their EEZ, and Britain was always fighting a losing battle by opposing this. The loss of access to these fisheries devastated many British fishing communities such as Hull and Grimsby and many Scottish ports, with as many as 1,500 fishermen and several thousand shore-based workers from these areas losing their jobs. Iceland, on the other hand, has remained outside of the European Union and therefore free from the Common Fisheries Policy. This has allowed Iceland to manage its own fish stocks responsibly and sustainably, meaning today it has the highest fish stocks in Europe and one of the most productive and efficient fishing industries in the world.