40 years ago yesterday, Iceland expanded its territorial waters from 50 to 200 miles, igniting the third – and last – of the Cod Wars, ending in Icelandic victory.
As RÚV reports, October 15, 1975 marked the first time any nation declared for itself 200 nautical miles of territorial waters. The decision did not go unnoticed by the rest of the world, and the British in particular had objections, as they engaged in a considerable amount of fishing in the area Iceland was claiming for itself. What followed would be the most violent of the three Cod Wars.
While no one was killed or seriously injured, the conflict was not without its confrontational moments. The greatest weapon in the Icelandic arsenal was the use of net cutters; anchor-like grappling hooks towed by Icelandic Coast Guard vessels that would snap the connecting net cables of British trawlers.
Perhaps the most heated conflict of the Third Cod War took place in Seyðisfjörður on December 11, 1975. The Icelandic vessel Þór, leaving the port, discovered three British vessels – Lloydsman, Star Aquarius and Star Polaris – were gathered at the mouth of the fjord. What happened next differs greatly between Icelandic and British accounts: by Icelandic accounts, both Lloydsman and Star Aquarius rammed Þór several times, prompting Þór to fire warning shots at the vessels to get them to back down, and causing considerable damage to the Icelandic ship; by British accounts, Þór had attempted to board one of the boats, and the British were left with no choice but to defend themselves.
Whatever happened, the result was the British dispatched frigates to Iceland. Tensions would increase, culminating in another conflict in January 1976, when the British ship Andromeda collided with Þór, leaving a gaping hole in Þór’s hull. Again, accounts differed greatly between Britain and Iceland regarding who had attacked who.
Things would reach a fever pitch later that spring, as Iceland sought to acquire Asheville class gunboats from the United States, but were rebuffed by then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Iceland then turned its attention to the Soviet Union, and hoping to get Mirka class frigates.
In the end, it would take Iceland threatening to close the NATO base in Keflavík to force Britain’s hand. The UK, not wanting to leave the strategic waters open to a possible Soviet presence, agreed to abide to 200-mile limit. By June 1976, the third and final Cod War had come to an end.
The conclusion was not an easy one for Britain to take, especially in the fishing industry. In 2012, the British government issued an apology and £1,000 compensation to 2,500 British fishermen over the loss of jobs and livelihood that resulted from abiding the 200-mile limit. The government was criticised for offering “too little, too late”.
Today, Iceland and the UK are ostensible friends and allies, and people in both island nations can rest assured that Iceland’s territorial waters will likely not expand again any time soon.