On this day in history : 1st September 1958 – A series of confrontations over fishing rights begins between Britain and Iceland and becomes known as the ‘Cod Wars’….

The term Cod Wars was coined by a British journalist in early September 1958; although they were hardly all out ‘wars’ there were certainly some very heated exchanges…. At the peak of hostilities a total of 37 Royal Navy warships were mobilised to protect British trawlers who were fishing in the disputed waters….

British trawler Coventry City passes Icelandic Coast Guard patrol vessel Albert off the Westfjords, 1958 – original uploader Kjallakr – Public domain

The first Cod War took place in the autumn of 1958 – the disagreement being over who could fish in the seas around Iceland – which then had the standard 4 mile zone around its shores…. Iceland was worried that foreign vessels were over-fishing – and so increased the zone to 12 miles…. Britain was unhappy about this and ignored the new restriction…. There were a number of skirmishes – with Icelandic patrol boats firing across the bows of British trawlers and the Royal Navy threatening to sink Iceland’s boats…. Eventually Britain backed down and an agreement was made between the two countries that any future disputes would be settled through the International Court of Justice….

However, in 1972 Iceland conveniently ‘forgot’ about this agreement and extended the exclusion zone to 50 miles…. Once again Britain refused to recognise this and a second Cod War ensued – with Iceland’s patrol boats chasing British and German trawlers out of its newly claimed waters…. Iceland started to cut the nets of foreign trawlers and there were cases of Royal Navy ships being rammed by the Icelandic Coast Guard…. In March 1973 ‘Brucella’, a British trawler, refused to leave the zone and crew from an Icelandic vessel boarded her and began firing rifles, damaging the trawler’s lifeboats and bridge…. Thankfully nobody was hurt….

Example of a net cutter, as first used in the second Cod War CC BY-SA 3.0

An even more serious incident occurred in July 1974; a large British trawler, the C.S Forester, was seen fishing within the zone and an Icelandic patrol boat gave chase – pursuing the trawler for more than 100 miles…. The patrol boat then shelled the trawler (using non-explosive ammunition) – at least two of these shells hit and caused considerable damage…. The trawler was then towed to an Icelandic port, impounded and the skipper jailed…. Only after the C.S Forester’s owners paid a substantial amount of money was he released along with the trawler….

After negotiations between Iceland and Britain it was agreed British trawlers could fish in certain parts of the zone, sticking to an annual quota of fish…. This agreement was to last for two years, being set to expire on the 13th of November 1975….

As soon as this date arrived the third Cod War began….as Iceland immediately extended the zone once more….to 200 miles! Britain was furious – as were many other European countries – and this time things got even more heated…. One incident involved an Icelandic patrol boat and three Royal Navy ships – the patrol boat was rammed and began to sink…. In retaliation it began to fire, first blank and then live ammunition…. A British ship, the Star Aquarius, was hit – but only minor damage occurred and there were no casualties….

The collision of British frigate HMS Scylla and Icelandic patrol boat Odinn during the third Cod War – Image credit : Isaac Newton CC BY-SA 2.5

In total there were 55 cases of Royal Navy ships ramming Icelandic vessels in this third Cod War…. Things finally came to a head in the spring of 1976…. Near to the town of Keflavik in Western Iceland there was located a US-manned NATO naval air base – crucial to American operations…. The Icelandic government threatened to close it down and this led the US to put considerable pressure on Britain to back down and acknowledge Iceland’s self-imposed fishing territorial rights…. On the 28th of May 1976 an agreement was finally reached – one that definitely was not in Britain’s favour…. For the following six months a maximum of just 24 trawlers were allowed to fish in the zone with a total catch limited to 50,000 tons – after that period Britain had no right to fish within 200 miles of Iceland…. Britain’s already declining fishing industry was hit hard – ports such as Hull, Grimsby and Fleetwood were severely economically affected…. Thousands of fishermen and associated trades lost their jobs….

Laid-up trawlers at Grimsby Docks in the 1970s, after the Cod Wars – Photo credit : John Gulliver via Flickr

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