The Cod Wars: Fishing disputes between the UK and Iceland

The Cod Wars

The Cod Wars were a series of disputes between the United Kingdom and Iceland over fishing rights in the North Atlantic, which took place between 1958 and 1976, involving several confrontations at sea, diplomatic tensions, and economic repercussions for both countries.

The root of the conflict lay in Iceland’s attempts to expand its exclusive fishing zone, primarily to protect its vital cod fishing industry from overfishing by foreign trawlers, including those from the United Kingdom. The disputes were marked by three main periods of confrontation: the First Cod War (1958-1961), the Second Cod War (1972-1973), and the Third Cod War (1975-1976).

During the First Cod War, Iceland unilaterally extended its exclusive fishing zone from 4 to 12 nautical miles, which was met with strong opposition from the UK. British trawlers continued to fish in the disputed waters, leading to incidents of Icelandic Coast Guard vessels attempting to cut the fishing nets of the British trawlers. The conflict ended in 1961 with a temporary agreement, allowing British vessels to fish in certain areas within the 12-mile limit.

The Second Cod War erupted in 1972 when Iceland further extended its fishing zone to 50 nautical miles. The UK again protested the move and sent naval vessels to protect its fishing fleet. The situation escalated, with both sides’ vessels ramming each other and even firing warning shots. The conflict was resolved in 1973 through a temporary agreement, which allowed British trawlers limited access to the disputed zone.

The Third Cod War began in 1975 when Iceland expanded its fishing zone once more, this time to 200 nautical miles. The UK responded by sending naval vessels to protect its fishing fleet, leading to more aggressive confrontations at sea. In 1976, Iceland threatened to close a NATO base on its territory, which was strategically important during the Cold War. This prompted the intervention of the United States, which mediated a settlement between the two countries.

The Cod Wars ultimately resulted in Iceland’s victory, as the UK agreed to recognize the 200-mile fishing zone and significantly reduce its fishing activities in the area. The disputes had a lasting impact on the fishing industry in both countries, with the British fishing industry facing a significant decline. At the same time, Iceland successfully preserved its vital cod stocks and solidified its control over its fishing resources.