The Cod War
Almost forgotten now, the "Cod War" was once a nightly feature on British TV, giving many people their first opportunity to appreciate the appalling conditions that trawlermen dealt with as part of their working lives. Night after night, audiences were treated to newsreels showing crews struggling to chop thick layers of ice that threatened to capsize their boats, often in mountainous seas, while the British and Icelandic navies duked it out in one of the most inhospitable environments known to man. On the face of it, the war was an unequal contest that the British should have won, but the Icelanders had a far better case and in the end, hostilities were brought to an end over the negotiating table.
The first Cod War was a short affair, which lasted less than three months, from early September to mid-Novemeber 1958. It was triggered bythe passage of an Icelandic law which attempted to extend the Icelandic territorial fishery limit from 4 to 12 nautical miles. The British response was to send naval units to the scene and declare three protected areas in which the nation's trawlers could fish - it was an unequal battle, given the relative sizes of the two navies, but there was no questioning the determination of the Icelanders. There was at least one ramming and several cases of shots being fired across bows before an agreement was finally reached. Part of the agreement was that any further disputes would be taken to the International Court at the Hague, rather than fought out on the high seas.
This wasn't the first time that the British and the Icelanders had come to blows over territorial limits - that was in 1893, when the Icelandic goverment tried to extend its territorial limit to 13 nautical miles, largely because the nation was so dependent on fishing. The British government did not recognise the extension and British trawlers continued to fish in the face of harassment by Icelandic gunboats, but there was no intervention by the Royal Navy. This dispute was a fairly low-level affair which ended with the outbreak of the First World War and the end result was that a 4 mile limit was recognised.
The second Cod War began in 1972, when Iceland declared an Exclusive Economic Zone extending beyond its internationally recognised territorial waters. The Icelandic coast guard backed this unilateral declaration up by obstructing with British trawlers and by cutting their nets, with the result that the Royal Navy was called in. Tempers ran pretty high and there were several rammings - but the conflict drew to a close in December 1976 when the Icelandic government threatened to close a NATO base if the British did not withdraw. The British government didn't really have much choice in the matter as the base in question was key to discharging its patrol duties against Soviet submarines in the northern ocean. The Icelanders defended their exclusion of foreign trawlers from the Exclusive Economic Zone on the grounds that the waters were being overfished.
The third Cod War began in November 1975 and lasted until June of the following year. This time, the trigger was a major extension of the Icelandic territorial limit to 200 nautical miles. This was the most serious of all the Cod Wars, largely because of the determination of the British government to back its trawlermen. There were several near sinkings as a result of rammings (such as the one shown above between the frigate Scylla and the coastguard's Odinn), live rounds were fired at vessels and in the end the war was only brought to a close when Iceland played the same card as it had at the end of the Second Cod War and stated that it would close a NATO base.
The Cod Wars are a long while ago now and memories have faded, but the economic consequences for British trawlermen were severe, with the big ports of Hull and Grimsby being particularly hard hit - in retrospect, it was the first serious conflict over fishery resouces to happen in modern times. One thing is for sure, it will not be the last.
We are looking for a writer with special knowledge of the history of commercial fisheries in Britain - and also for unpublished photographs.