Cod Wars

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The Cod Wars (Icelandic: Þorskastríðin, "the cod war", or Landhelgisstríðin, "the war for the territorial waters"[1]) were a series of confrontations between the United Kingdom and Iceland regarding fishing rights in the North Atlantic. Each of the disputes ended with Iceland's victory.[2][3] The final Cod War concluded with a highly favorable agreement for Iceland, as the United Kingdom conceded to a 200 nautical-mile Icelandic exclusive fishery zone following threats that Iceland would leave NATO, the impact of which devasted British communities. [4][3]

The term "cod war" was coined by a British journalist in early September 1958.[5] None of the Cod Wars meet any of the common thresholds for a conventional war though, and may more accurately be described as militarized interstate disputes.[6][7][8][9]

Background and history

Expansion of the Icelandic exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
  internal waters
  4 nmi expansion
  12 nmi expansion (current extent of territorial waters)
  50 nmi expansion
  200 nmi expansion (current extent of EEZ)
Sea areas in international rights did not become universally recognised until 1982.

Fishermen from the British Isles began to fish in international waters near Iceland in and around 1400. From the early 16th century onwards, English sailors and fishermen were a major presence in the waters off Iceland.[10][11]

Some Icelandic historians view the history of Iceland's struggle for control of its maritime resources in ten episodes (or ten cod wars). The first of these Cod Wars was a dispute between Norway and England in 1415–1425 over the latter's trading with Iceland, which was in violation of Norway's monopoly on the Icelandic trade. This dispute ended when the English arrested Eric of Pomerania's officials in Iceland, effectively restoring the Anglo-Icelandic trade. The agreement reached in 1976 (which concluded what is traditionally considered the Third Cod War) is considered the final and tenth Cod War.[10]

With increases in fishing ability enabled by steam power in the latter part of the 19th century, pressure was exerted on boat owners and skippers to exploit new grounds. Large catches in Icelandic waters meant voyages across the North Atlantic became more regular. In 1893, the Danish Government, which had governed Iceland and the Faroe Islands, claimed a fishing limit of 50 nmi (93 km) around their shores. British trawler owners disputed this claim and continued to send their ships to the waters near Iceland.

The British Government did not recognise this claim, on the grounds that setting such a precedent would lead to similar claims by nations which surrounded the North Sea, which would be damaging to the British fishing industry.[citation needed]

In 1896 the United Kingdom made an agreement with Denmark which allowed for British vessels to use any Icelandic port for shelter, provided they stowed their gear and trawl nets. In return, British vessels were not to fish east of a line from Illunypa to Thornodesker Islet.[citation needed]

In April 1899 the steam trawler Caspian was fishing off the Faroe Islands when a Danish gunboat tried to arrest her for allegedly fishing illegally inside the limits. The trawler refused to stop and was fired upon. Eventually the trawler was caught but, before going aboard the Danish vessel, the skipper ordered the mate to make a dash for it. The Caspian set off at full speed. The gunboat fired several shots at the unarmed boat but could not catch up with the trawler, which returned heavily damaged to Grimsby. On board the Danish gunboat the skipper of the Caspian was lashed to the mast. A court held at Thorshavn convicted him on several counts including illegal fishing and attempted assault and he was jailed for thirty days.[citation needed]

With many British trawlers being charged and fined by Danish gunboats for fishing illegally within the 13-mile (24.1 km) limit (which the British Government refused to recognise), the British press began to enquire why this Danish action against British interests was allowed to continue without intervention by the Royal Navy. The issue was left largely unresolved and the reduction in fishing activity brought about by the First World War effectively ended the dispute.[citation needed]

Attempts by the Icelanders to ban foreign trawling within Iceland's traditional territorial waters (4 miles wide and including bays and fjords) were unsuccessful. British gunboat diplomacy, the display of naval force, in 1896–1897 led to the Anglo-Danish Territorial Waters Agreement of 1901 which set 3-mile territorial limits (measured narrowly) for Iceland for 50 years.[12]

The Icelandic fisheries grew in importance for the British fishing industry towards the end of the 19th century.[13] While data is incomplete for the pre-WWI period, one historian argues that the Icelandic fishing grounds were "very important" to the British fishing industry as a whole.[14] Data for the period 1919–1938 shows a significant increase in the British total catches in Icelandic waters.[15] The British catches in Iceland were more than twice of the combined catches of all other grounds of the British distant water fleet.[16] Icelanders grew increasingly dismayed at the British presence.[17]

After independence from Denmark in 1944, Iceland cancelled the agreement between Denmark and the UK made in 1901.[18] Iceland and the United Kingdom were involved in a dispute from May 1952 to November 1956 over Iceland's unilateral extension of its fishery limits from three to four miles. Britain took the case to the International Court of Justice,[18] however, unlike in the Cod Wars, the United Kingdom never sent its Navy into Icelandic waters. The British trawling industry did, however, implement costly sanctions on Iceland by imposing a landing ban on Icelandic fish in British ports.[19][20] The landing ban was a major blow to the Icelandic fishing industry (the UK was Iceland's largest export market for fish) and caused consternation among Icelandic statesmen.[21][22] Cold War politics proved favorable for Iceland, as the USSR, seeking influence in Iceland, stepped in to purchase Icelandic fish. The US, fearing for greater Soviet influence in Iceland, also purchased Icelandic fish and saw to it that Spain and Italy would also purchase Icelandic fish.[19][23][24] USSR-US involvement therefore made the British landing ban ineffective. Some scholars refer to the Dispute of 1952–1956 as one of the Cod Wars, given that the object of the dispute, and the costs and risks of the dispute were similar to those in the other three Cod Wars.[25][26][27] Just as the other Cod Wars, the Dispute of 1952–1956 ended with Iceland achieving its aims, as the Icelandic four mile fishery limits were recognized by the United Kingdom following a decision by the Organisation of European Economic Co-operation in 1956.[19] Two years later, in 1958, the United Nations convened the first International Conference on the Law of the Sea attended by eighty-six states.[28] Several countries sought to extend the limit of their territorial waters to 12 miles, but the conference did not reach any firm conclusions.[18][29]

First Cod War

First Cod War
Part of the Cod Wars
"Coventry City" and ICGV "Albert" off the Westfjords
Coventry City and ICGV Albert off the Westfjords
Date 1 September 1958 – February/March 1961
Location Waters surrounding Iceland
Result Icelandic victory
An agreement is reached between the United Kingdom and Iceland where the UK accepts the Icelandic annexation while Iceland agrees to take further claims before the International Court at The Hague
Iceland expands its territorial waters to 12 nautical miles
 Iceland  United Kingdom
Commanders and leaders
 Icelandic Coast Guard
  • 2 large patrol vesselsa
  • 6 small patrol vessels
 Royal Navy
Casualties and losses
a 3 by February 1960.

The First Cod War lasted from 1 September 1958 until February/March 1961.[33][34] It began as soon as a new Icelandic law that expanded the Icelandic fishery zone, from 4 to 12 nautical miles (7.4 to 22.2 km), came into force at midnight on 1 September.

All NATO members opposed the unilateral Icelandic extension.[35] The British declared that their trawlers would fish under protection from their warships in three areas: out of the Westfjords, north of Horn and to the southeast of Iceland. All in all, 20 British trawlers, four warships and a supply vessel were inside the newly declared zones. This deployment was expensive; in February 1960 Lord Carrington, the minister responsible of the Royal Navy, reported that his ships near Iceland had expended half a million pounds sterling worth of oil since the new year and that a total of 53 British warships had taken part in the operations.[36] Against this Iceland could deploy seven Patrol vessels[37] and a single PBY-6A Catalina flying boat.[38]

The deployment of the British Navy to contested waters led to protests in Iceland. Demonstrations against the British embassy were met with taunts by the British ambassador, Andrew Gilchrist, as he played bagpipe music and military marches on full blast on his gramophone.[39]

Many incidents followed. The Icelanders were, however, at a disadvantage in patrolling the contested waters due to the size of the area and the limited number of patrol ships. According to one historian, "only the flagship Thór could effectively arrest and, if necessary, tow a trawler to harbour".[40]

On 4 September ICGV Ægir, an Icelandic patrol vessel, attempted to take a British trawler off the Westfjords, but was thwarted when HMS Russell intervened and the two vessels collided.

On 6 October V/s María Júlía fired three shots at the trawler Kingston Emerald, forcing the trawler to escape to sea.

On 12 November V/s Þór encountered the trawler Hackness which had not stowed its nets legally. Hackness did not stop until Þór had fired two blanks and one live shell off its bow. Once again, HMS Russell came to the rescue and its shipmaster ordered the Icelandic captain to leave the trawler alone as it was not within the 4 nmi (7.4 km) limit recognised by the British government. Þór's captain, Eiríkur Kristófersson, said that he would not do so, and ordered his men to approach the trawler with the gun manned. In response, the Russell threatened to sink the Icelandic boat if it so much as fired one shot at the Hackness. More British ships then arrived and the Hackness retreated.

Icelandic officials threatened to withdraw Iceland's membership of NATO and expel US forces from Iceland unless a satisfactory conclusion could be reached to the dispute.[41] Even prominently pro-Western (in Iceland, this term referred to proponents of NATO and the US Defence Agreement) cabinet members were forced to resort to the threats, as it was Iceland's chief leverage and it would have been domestic political suicide not to use this leverage.[42]

Following the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea between 1960 and 1961,[18][29][43] Britain and Iceland came to a settlement, which stipulated that Iceland got 12 mile fishery limits but that Britain would have limited rights to fish in the outer six miles for three years.[44] This deal was very similar to one that Iceland offered in the weeks and days leading up to its unilateral extension in 1958.[45] As part of the agreement, it was stipulated that any future disagreement between Iceland and Britain in the matter of fishery zones would be sent to the International Court of Justice in the Hague. In total, the First Cod War saw a total of 37 Royal Navy ships and 7,000 sailors protecting the fishing fleet from six Icelandic gunboats and their 100 coast guards.[46]

Second Cod War

Second Cod War
Part of the Cod Wars
Net cutter
A net cutter, first used in the Second Cod War.
Date 1 September 1972 – 8 November 1973
Location Waters surrounding Iceland
Result Icelandic victory
An agreement is reached between the United Kingdom and Iceland where the UK accepts the Icelandic annexation in exchange for permission to catch 150,000 tons of fish until 1975
Iceland creates 50 nautical-mile exclusive fishery zone
 Iceland  United Kingdom
 West Germany[47] Belgium [48]
Commanders and leaders
 Icelandic Coast Guard
  • 3 large patrol vessels
  • 2 small patrol vessels
  • 1 armed whaler
 Royal Navy
Casualties and losses
1 engineer killed[49] 1 German fisherman[50]
The primary objective of the Icelandic Coast Guard during the latter two wars was to cut nets in this manner.

The Second Cod War between the United Kingdom and Iceland lasted from September 1972 until the signing of a temporary agreement in November 1973.

The Icelandic government had two goals in extending its fishery limits: (1) to conserve fish stocks and (2) to increase Iceland's share of total catches.[51] The reason why Iceland pursued 50 mile fishery limits rather than 200 mile limits were that the most fruitful fishing grounds were within the 50 miles and patrolling the 200 mile limits would have been more difficult.[52]

The British contested the Icelandic extension with two goals in mind: (1) to achieve the greatest possible catch quota for British fishermen in the contested waters and (2) to prevent a de facto recognition of a unilateral extension of a fishery jurisdiction, which would set a precedent for other extensions.[51]

All Western European states and the Warsaw Pact opposed Iceland's unilateral extension.[53] African states declared support for Iceland's extension, after a meeting in 1971 where the Icelandic prime minister argued that the Icelandic cause was a part of a broader battle against colonialism and imperialism.[54]

On 1 September 1972 the enforcement of the law that expanded the Icelandic fishery limits to 50 nmi (93 km) began. Numerous British and West German trawlers continued fishing within the new zone on the first day. The Icelandic leftist coalition which governed at the time ignored the treaty that stipulated the involvement of the International Court of Justice. It said that it was not bound by agreements made by the previous centre-right government, with Lúdvik Jósepsson, the fisheries minister, stating that "the basis for our independence is economic independence".[55]

The next day, ICGV Ægir chased 16 trawlers, in waters east of the country, out of the 50 nmi zone.

On 5 September 1972, at 10:25,[56] ICGV Ægir, under Guðmundur Kjærnested's command, encountered an unmarked trawler fishing northeast of Hornbanki. The master of this black-hulled trawler refused to divulge the trawler's name and number and, after being warned to follow the Coast Guard's orders, played Rule, Britannia! over the radio.[3] At 10:40 the net cutter was deployed into the water for the first time and Ægir sailed along the trawler's port side. The fishermen tossed a thick nylon rope into the water as the patrol ship closed in, attempting to disable its propeller. After passing the trawler, Ægir veered to the trawler's starboard side. The net cutter, 160 fathoms (290 m) behind the patrol vessel, sliced one of the trawling wires. As ICGV Ægir came about to circle the unidentified trawler, its angry crew threw coal as well as garbage and a large fire axe at the Coast Guard vessel.[56] A considerable amount of swearing and shouting came through the radio, which resulted in the trawler being identified as Peter Scott (H103).[56]

During this war the Icelandic Coast Guard started to use net cutters to cut the trawling lines of non-Icelandic vessels fishing within the new exclusion zone. On 18 January 1973 the nets of eighteen trawlers were cut. This forced the British seamen to leave the Icelandic fishery zone unless they had the protection of the Royal Navy. The day after, large, fast tugboats were sent to their defence. The first was the Statesman. The British considered this insufficient and formed a special group to defend the trawlers.

On 23 January 1973 the volcano Eldfell on Heimaey erupted, forcing the Coast Guard to divert its attention to rescuing the inhabitants of the small island.

On 17 May the British trawlers left the Icelandic waters, only to return two days later with British frigates. The Icelandic lighthouse tender V/s Árvakur collided with four British vessels on 1 June and six days later ICGV Ægir collided with HMS Scylla, when it was reconnoitring for icebergs off the Westfjords, even though no trawlers were present.

On 29 August[57] the Icelandic Coast Guard suffered the only fatality of the conflict after ICGV Ægir collided with yet another British frigate. An engineer on board the Icelandic vessel died by electrocution from his welding equipment after sea water flooded the compartment where he was making hull repairs.[49][58]

On 16 September Joseph Luns, Secretary-General of NATO, arrived in Reykjavík to talk with Icelandic ministers, who had been pressed to leave NATO as it had been of no help to the Icelandic people in the conflict. (Britain and Iceland were both NATO members. The Royal Navy made use of bases in Iceland during the Cold War in order to fulfill their primary NATO duty, guarding the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap.)

After a series of talks within NATO, British warships were recalled on 3 October. An agreement was signed on 8 November which limited British fishing activities to certain areas inside the 50 nmi limit, resolving the dispute that time. The resolution was based on the premise that British trawlers would limit their annual catch to no more than 130,000 tons. This agreement expired in November 1975, and the third "Cod War" began.

The Second Cod War threatened Iceland's membership in NATO and the US military presence in Iceland. It is the closest that Iceland has come to cancelling its bilateral Defence Agreement with the US.[59] Icelandic NATO membership and hosting of US military had considerable importance to Cold War strategy due to Iceland's location in the middle of the GIUK gap.

C.S. Forester incident

On 19 July 1974,[60] more than nine months after the signing of the agreement, one of the largest wet fish stern trawlers in the British fleet, C.S. Forester,[61] which had been fishing inside the 12 nmi limit, was shelled and captured by the Icelandic gunboat V/s Þór after a 100-mile-long pursuit.[62] C. S. Forester was shelled with non-explosive ammunition after repeated warnings. The trawler was hit by at least two rounds, which damaged the engine room and a water tank.[63] She was later boarded and towed to Iceland.[64] Skipper Richard Taylor was condemned to 30 days of imprisonment and fined £5,000. He was released on bail after the owners paid £2,232. The trawler was also allowed to depart with a catch of 200 tons of fish. Her owners paid a total of £26,300 for the release of the ship.[62]

Third Cod War

Third Cod War
Part of the Cod Wars
ICGV "Odinn" and HMS "Scylla" clash in the North Atlantic
Icelandic patrol ship ICGV Óðinn and British frigate HMS Scylla clash in the North Atlantic
Date 16 November 1975 – late June 1976
Location Waters surrounding Iceland
Result Icelandic victory
An agreement is reached between the United Kingdom and Iceland where the UK accepts the Icelandic expansion while receiving a temporary allowable catch for its fishing fleet
Iceland expands its exclusive fishery zone to 200 nautical miles
 Iceland  United Kingdom
Commanders and leaders
 Icelandic Coast Guard
 Royal Navy
Casualties and losses
None 1 fisherman killed[65]

At the third United Nations Conference of the Law on the Sea in 1975, several countries supported a 100-mile limit to territorial waters.[18][29][66] The Third Cod War (November 1975 – June 1976) began after Iceland declared the ocean up to 200 nautical miles (370 km) from its coast fell under Icelandic authority. The British government did not recognise this large increase to the exclusion zone, and as a result, there came to be an issue with British fishermen and their activity in the disputed zone. The conflict, which was the most hard fought of the Cod Wars, saw British fishing trawlers have their nets cut by the Icelandic Coast Guard, and there were several incidents of ramming by Icelandic ships and British trawlers, frigates and tugboats.

One of the more serious incidents occurred on 11 December 1975. As reported by Iceland, V/s Þór, under the command of Helgi Hallvarðsson, was leaving port at Seyðisfjörður, where it had been minesweeping, when orders were received to investigate the presence of unidentified foreign vessels at the mouth of the fjord. These vessels were identified as three British ships, Lloydsman, an oceangoing tug which was three times bigger than V/s Þór, Star Aquarius, an oil rig supply vessel of British Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and her sister ship Star Polaris. They were sheltering from a force nine gale within Iceland's 12-nautical-mile (22 km) territorial waters.[67]

In the Icelandic account, when ordered to leave Icelandic territorial waters by Þór's commander the three tugboats initially complied. But around two nautical miles (4 km) from the coast the Star Aquarius allegedly veered to starboard and hit Þórs port side as the Coast Guards attempted to overtake her. Even as Þór increased speed, the Lloydsman again collided with its port side. The Þór had suffered considerable damage by these hits so when the Star Aquarius came about, a blank round was fired from Þór. This didn't deter the Star Aquarius as it hit Þór a second time. Another shot was fired from Þór as a result, this time a live round that hit Star Aquarius's bow. After that the tug-boats retreated. V/s Þór, which was close to sinking after the confrontation, sailed to Loðmundarfjörður for temporary repairs.[68]

The British reports of the incident differ considerably, maintaining that Þór attempted to board one of the tug-boats, and as Þór broke away the Lloydsman surged forward to protect the Star Aquarius. Captain Albert MacKenzie of the Star Aquarius said the Þór approached from the stern and hit the support vessel before it veered off and fired a shot from a range of about 100 yards (91 m). Niels Sigurdsson, the Icelandic Ambassador in London, said Þór had been firing in self-defence after it had been rammed by British vessels. Iceland consulted the United Nations Security Council over the incident, which declined to intervene.[69] The immediate Royal Navy response was to despatch a large frigate force, which was already well on the way to Icelandic waters, before the PM Harold Wilson or the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Crosland, were informed.[70] The Royal Navy saw the opportunity to demonstrate the capabilities of its older Type 12 and 81 frigates for sustained deployment in the area of the Denmark strait where they were expected to deter the passage of Soviet submarines in a time when the Royal Navy was threatened by further serious defence and naval cuts by the Royal Navy's chief bête noir, the Chancellor of Exchequer and former Minister of Defence, Denis Healey.[71] The Royal Navy saw its strategic aim at the time as much as fighting Healey as the Soviet Navy.[72] The second and third cod wars were necessary wars for the Royal Navy, like the Falklands Operation six years later.[73] To the foreign secretary Crosland, also MP for the trawler port of Grimsby, the third war was a more serious threat to the Western Alliance than the Middle East [74]

A second incident occurred in January 1976, when HMS Andromeda collided with the Þór. Þór sustained a hole in its hull, while the Andromeda's hull was dented. The British Ministry of Defence said that the collision represented a "deliberate attack" on the British warship "without regard for life". The Icelandic Coast Guard on the other hand insisted Andromeda had rammed Þór by "overtaking the boat and then swiftly changing course".[citation needed] After this incident, and facing a growing number of ships enduring dockyard repairs, the Royal Navy ordered a "more cautious approach" when dealing with "the enemy cutting the trawlers' warps".[75] On 19 February 1976 the British Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food announced that a fisherman from Grimsby had become the first British casualty of the Third Cod War,[76] when a hawser hit and mortally injured him after Icelandic vessels cut a trawl.[77] A British parliamentary source reported that a British trawlerman was "accidentally" killed by a solid shot fired by an Icelandic patrol boat.[78]

Britain deployed a total of 22 frigates. It also ordered the reactivation from reserve of the type 41 frigate HMS Jaguar and Type 61 HMS Lincoln, refitting them as specialist rammers with reinforced wooden bows. In addition to the frigates, the British also deployed a total of seven supply ships, nine tug-boats and three support ships to protect its fishing trawlers, although only six to nine of these vessels were on deployment at any one time.[79] The Royal Navy was prepared to accept serious damage to its Cold War frigate fleet, costing millions and disabling part of its North Atlantic capacity for more than a year. HMS Yarmouth had its bow torn off, HMS Diomede had a forty foot gash ripped its hull and HMS Eastbourne suffered such structural damage from ramming by Icelandic gunboats that it had to be reduced to a moored operational training frigate. Iceland deployed four patrol vessels (V/s Óðinn, V/s Þór, V/s Týr, and V/s Ægir) and two armed trawlers (V/s Baldur and V/s Ver).[79][80] The Icelandic government tried to acquire US Asheville class gunboats and when denied by Henry Kissinger, tried to acquire Soviet Mirka class frigates instead. A more serious turn of events came when Iceland threatened closure of the NATO base at Keflavík, which would have severely impaired NATO's ability to defend the Atlantic Ocean from the Soviet Union. As a result, the British government agreed to have its fishermen stay outside Iceland's 200 nautical mile (370 km) exclusion zone without a specific agreement.

On the evening of 6 May 1976, after the outcome of the Third Cod War had already been decided, the V/s Týr was trying to cut the nets of the trawler Carlisle, when Captain Gerald Plumer of HMS Falmouth ordered it rammed. The Falmouth at the speed of 22+ knots (41+ km/h) rammed the Týr, almost capsizing her. The Týr did not sink and managed to cut the nets of Carlisle, after which the Falmouth rammed it again. The Týr was heavily damaged and found herself propelled by only a single screw and pursued by the tug-boat Statesman. In this dire situation, Captain Guðmundur Kjærnested gave orders to man the guns, in spite of the overwhelming superiority of firepower HMS Falmouth enjoyed, to deter any further ramming. [81] The third Cod War saw 55 ramming incidents altogether.[82]

While Iceland came closest to withdrawing from NATO and expelling US forces in the Second Cod War, Iceland actually took the most serious action in all of the Cod Wars in the Third Cod War when the Icelandic government ended diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom on 19 February 1976.[20] Despite the fact that the Icelandic government was firmly pro-Western, the government linked Iceland's NATO membership with the outcomes of the fishery dispute. If a favorable outcome could not be reached, it was implied that Iceland would withdraw from NATO. The government never explicitly linked the US Defence Agreement to the outcome of the dispute though.[20]


Iceland achieved its overall aims to the detriment of the already declining British fisheries,[83] severely affecting the economies of northern fishing ports in the United Kingdom, such as Grimsby, Hull, and Fleetwood.[84]

A multi-million pound compensation deal and apology was offered by the British government in 2012 for fishermen who lost their livelihoods in the 1970s. More than 35 years after the workers lost their jobs, the £1,000 compensation offered to 2,500 fisherman was criticised for being insufficient and excessively delayed.[85]

See also


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Further reading

  • Ingo Heidbrink: “Deutschlands einzige Kolonie ist das Meer” Die deutsche Hochseefischerei und die Fischereikonflikte des 20. Jahrhunderts. Hamburg (Convent Vlg) 2004.
  • Kurlansky, Mark. Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World. New York: Walker & Company, 1997 (reprint edition: Penguin, 1998). ISBN 0-8027-1326-2, ISBN 0-14-027501-0.

External links