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The Cod Wars

The Cod! Still today Britains most favourite fish. Fish and chips would not be the same without it! It is a common species of fish and has an ability to produce huge quantities of young (or should we say ‘did’)! The fish was on the brink of extinction!

Yet, this fish was the cause of two NATO allies going to the brink of war. Between November 1975 and June 1976, Great Britain and Iceland confronted each other over Iceland's proclaiming its authority over the ocean up to 200 miles from its coast.

The issue was the amount of cod caught by British and Icelandic fishermen. This "war" consisted of British fishing trawlers having their nets cut by the Icelandic Coast Guard and numerous rammings between Icelandic ships and British trawlers and frigates.

The "war" caused Iceland to threaten to close the NATO base at Keflavik, which would have had major repercussions on the ability of NATO to defend the Atlantic Ocean from Soviet incursions. With this threat hanging over its head, plus the international trend towards a 200 mile economic exclusion zone, and the economic cost of the conflict, Great Britain agreed to have its fishermen stay outside Iceland's 200 mile economic zone without specific agreements.

In November, 1975, the third Cod War between Great Britain and Iceland began. This dispute centered on Iceland's decision to extend its zone of control over fishing from 50 miles beyond its shores to 200 miles. Great Britain did not recognize Iceland's authority in this matter and so continued fishing inside the disputed area. Iceland deployed 8 ships, six Coast Guard vessels and two Polish-built stern trawlers converted into Coast Guard ships to enforce her control over fishing rights.

In response, Great Britain deployed a total of twenty-two frigates (although no more than six to nine frigates at one time), seven supply ships, nine tug-boats and three support ships (Miranda, Othello and Hausa) to protect its 40 fishing trawlers. While few shots were fired during the seven-month conflict, several ships were rammed on both sides, causing damage to the vessels and a few injuries to the crews.

This was the third time Iceland and Great Britain had clashed over fishing rights, particularly over the rights to fish for cod. The first "war" occurred in 1958 when Britain was unable to prevent Iceland from extending its fishing limits from 4 miles to 12 miles off Iceland's coast.

The second dispute was in 1972-1973, when Iceland extended its limits to 50 miles. This conflict was concluded with an agreement between the two countries that limited British fishing to certain areas inside the 50 mile limit. In addition, Britain agreed that British vessels could not catch more than 130,000 tons of fish annually. This agreement was valid for two years, and expired on November 13, 1975, when the third "Cod War" started.

The Icelandic position was similar in all three conflicts. The major point was that Iceland depends on its fishing industry more than any other state in the world. Iceland has few natural resources, no timber, no fuel, little agricultural potential, and no mineral deposits. Its economy is uniquely dependent on fishing for survival and for exports, to fund the imports needed for the other parts of the economy. "Fish and fish products of one form or another...have on average accounted for 89.71 per cent of Iceland's total export in each year during the period 1881-1976." Iceland argued, therefore, that it had an overwhelming need to ensure the survival of the fish stocks in its area.

In addition, Iceland stated that foreign fishermen, from the Faroe Islands, Belgium, West Germany, and the majority from Great Britain, were causing an over-exploitation of the fish stocks around Iceland. The tonnage of fish catches had been decreasing since a peak in the 1950's, even though technological improvements allowed greater catches for fishing vessels.

The size and age of the cod caught had also steadily decreased over the years. This meant that there were fewer cod spawning, thus reducing the total population of cod existing. Stocks of cod had decreased by a third during the 1970's. Iceland stated that fish catches would have to be reduced. Since Iceland's survival depended on fishing, it argued that other nations should bear the reduction of catches. Since Icelandic fishermen were able to catch all of the allowable tonnage of fish, all foreign fishing activity took fish from Icelandic fishermen, not in addition to the fish caught by Iceland.

Iceland was concerned that the cod might follow the pattern of the Icelandic herring, which during the 1960s almost disappeared. From a population of 8.5 million tons in 1958, the herring population declined to almost nothing by 1970. This decline could have been prevented by adequate conservation methods. This fear prompted conservation efforts by Iceland.

Iceland had attempted in the past to organize international conferences on establishing conservation regulations on fishing, with no response. Iceland had also offered suggestions to the United Nations conferences on the Law of the Sea regarding regulating fishing, such as closing nursery grounds to fishermen, placing quotas on tonnage of fish caught, and rotating preservations areas, where no fishing would occur. Most of these ideas were ignored, or retired to endless committees.

In order to enforce these conservation efforts, Iceland saw its 200 mile economic exclusion zone as necessary. No nation would be able to fish within 200 miles of Iceland without Iceland's permission. In addition, the Icelandic Coast Guard would be able to board any ship inside that limit, in order to determine its compliance with Icelandic fishing regulations. With marine biologists predicting that if these efforts were ignored there would have been no cod left by 1980, Iceland became convinced that it had to act unilaterally. Due to the failure of the international arena regarding the Icelandic herring, Iceland acted on its own to protect the cod.

In addition to the survival of the cod and the survival of Iceland arguments, there was the legal argument. In the United Nations conferences on the Law of the Sea, international opinion had tended towards a 200 mile economic exclusion zone, with a 12 mile limit on territorial waters.

At the first meeting of substance on the Law of the Sea, from July to August of 1974, more than 100 States supported the right of coastal States to establish an Exclusive Economic Zone of up to 200 nautical miles from baselines. This included Great Britain. Iceland stated that it was merely enforcing what would soon be an international law and that it was following precedents set by other nations.

Great Britain had different opinions. While it agreed that the number of cod had been decreasing, Britain was not convinced over- fishing was the cause, nor over what the limit on the catch should be. Iceland based its limit of 230,000 tons of cod allowed on how many four-month old cod are caught in sample catches. Great Britain based its proposal for 280,000 tons of cod on samples of older fish. However, little was actually known about the whole ecology of the fishery stocks, let alone the relationship between what numbers of what age of fish caught and the effect on the spawning population. Britain also argued that, while the international system was arriving at an agreed 200 mile limit, Iceland had no right to unilaterally enforce the limit.

As noted above, the conflict lasted for seven months. The United Nations' Security Council was consulted, after a particularly violent collision incident, but took no action. The Nordic Council issued a statement of support for Iceland. NATO and the United States became involved, due to Iceland's threat of closing the NATO base at Keflavik if the conflict with Great Britain continued. While the United States offered to mediate between the two parties, it was NATO intercession that helped end the dispute.

With mediation by the Secretary-General of NATO, Dr. Joseph Luns, Iceland and Great Britain were able to come to an agreement on June 2, 1976. This agreement limited the British to 24 trawlers from a list of 93, allowed inside the 200 mile limit at any one time. The amount of cod that Great Britain could legally catch was limited to 50,000 tons annually.

There were four conservation areas that were completely closed to all British fishing. In addition, Icelandic patrol vessels were allowed to halt and inspect British trawlers suspected of violating the agreement. The duration of the agreement was 6 months, after which Great Britain had no right to fish inside the 200 mile zone.

The British fishing industry based on Icelandic fish produced about 23.1 million pounds worth of catch. The agreement with Iceland caused about 1,500 fishermen to become unemployed, plus about 7,500 people on shore became unemployed.

Hull Trawler Kingston Beryl hauls her nets

This page focuses on the Third and Final “Cod War” which took place during 1975/76

Miranda's Z craft deployed to stricken trawler Lord Jellicoe Hull Trawler Lord Jellicoe rammed by ICGV Aegir Lord Jellicoe's stern after the clash ICGV Aegir. Cable with warp cutter can be seen at stern UK Defence Tug Lloydsman alongside Miranda ICGV Odin being shadowed by HMS Galatea Trawler St. Gerontius rams ICGV Odin. Picture (c) Derek McRiner St. Gerontius going astern after collision. Note damage to Odin! Pic (c) Derek McRiner

(Text source thanks to - Trade Environment Database)


The British government surrendered out fisheries as a Common European Resource when it joined the Common Market (the very reason Norway decided NOT to join!). But since early 2003, all EU fishermen have had equal access to British fisheries.

However, although almost 80 per cent of the EU fishing zone was originally UK territorial waters, British fishermen are allowed only 20 per cent of the catch quota, a figure which is falling as quota restrictions drive ever more of them from the sea.

The CFP has also created an ecological disaster, as the quota system requires perfectly edible fish to be thrown back into the sea, dead.

In the 80s and 90s, over 2 million tons of such fish were discarded under these rules each year.

(Text source - UKIP: http://www.ukip.org/)

A Footnote
Miranda negotiates an Iceberg

Hull Trawler Kingston Beryl hauls her nets

Miranda's Z craft deployed to stricken trawler Lord Jellicoe

Hull Trawler Lord Jellicoe rammed by ICGV Aegir

Lord Jellicoe's stern after the clash

ICGV Aegir. Cable with warp cutter can be seen at stern

UK Defence Tug Lloydsman alongside Miranda

ICGV Odin being shadowed by HMS Galatea

Trawler St. Gerontius rams ICGV Odin. Pic by Derek McRiner

St. Gerontius going astern after collision. Note damage to Odin!