I recently ate a delicious piece of cod in one of Reykjavík´s leading fish restaurants. All the while, I had a niggling awareness that my new adoptive country, Iceland, and my motherland, The Great British Empire, had fought no less than three wars over cod in the late twentieth century. As wars go, the Cod Wars aren’t that impressive or indeed war-like. Nothing was wiped off a map like in a game of battleships. Still, Britain lost all three episodes. We were out-manoeuvred by a nation we wrongly considered a minor threat. We took great pride in ousting Napoleon at Waterloo, creating carnage in the Falklands and single-handedly ridding Europe of Nazism, so why didn’t we blow up Icelandic boats in the cod wars?
It’s simple. In the late nineteenth century Iceland relied on fishing as its chief source of trade. Iceland trusted Denmark to police Icelandic waters as Britain frequently attempted to poach fish that didn’t belong to them. This continued right up until after the Second World War. The first Cod War took place in 1958. Britain deployed trawlers and warship protection in Icelandic waters. HMS Grafton even displayed a Soviet flag as well as the Union Jack. The Icelanders and the Soviets were pissed off and Grafton was deservedly rammed and had to go home for repair. Both countries went to court. Any future matters were to go to The Hague. Iceland had the political upper hand as the Brits were sent home packing.
The second tiff was 1972–1973; Britain again went fishing for trouble. The Icelandic coast guard started cutting our nets, rammings took place and battleships commenced. No big violence took place as NATO intervened and sanctioned that British boats were not to fish more than 130,000 tons annually or within 50 nautical miles. This agreement ran until November 1975.
In the third and most brutal episode of the Cod Wars, Iceland flexed its muscles, claiming rights up to 200 miles from its coastline. Cod was creating a stink. Icelandic sources clapim taht three British ships were ordered to leave Icelandic waters by Coast Guard vessel Þór. Two of the ships rammed Þór, which was forced to fire ammunition. More rammings followed, and Þór was close to sinking and had to seek repairs. British sources disagree with this.
Either way, NATO intervened and sanctioned that 24 British trawlers, from a list of 93, were allowed inside the 200-mile limit at any one time. Only 50,000 tons of fish were to be caught annually by the Brits. After 6 months, Britain was not allowed to fish anymore, a triple victory overall for the Icelanders. The Brits had fish on their face.