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”There’s Something Wrong With Our Bloody Fish Today”

Wargaming the “Cod Wars” By David Manley

Mention the phrase “Cod Wars“ in a British chippie these days and you’ll probably be met with blank stares, but in the mid 1970s everyone who enjoyed a bit of Cod wrapped in newspaper and served up with a pile of greasy chips was glued to events in the North Atlantic. In 1976 Britain went to “war” for the third time against Iceland over the issue of fishing rights and economic control of the sea. Night after night viewers of the BBC and ITV news programmes saw footage of RN frigates battling it out with the small, stocky and well built gunboats of the Icelandic Coast Guard. Eventually, as in the previous two “wars” a diplomatic solution was found which suited some parties on both sides and upset a few others (mostly in Britain and the rest of Europe). However, this is jumping the gun a little, so let’s begin with an overview of the Cod Wars.

The First Cod War

The first "war" occurred in mid to late 1958. At this time a nation’s territorial waters extended a mere 4 miles. British trawlers routinely fished up to the 4 mile limit. In 1958 Iceland unilaterally extended their limit to 12 miles. Iceland depends on its fishing industry more than just about any other country in the world. Iceland has few natural resources, no timber, no fuel, little agricultural potential, and no mineral deposits. As a result her economy is uniquely dependent on fishing for survival and for exports to fund the imports needed for the other parts of the economy, accounting for about 90% of Iceland's total exports in each year between 1881 and 1976. Therefore, it was argued, Iceland had an overwhelming need to ensure the survival of the fish stocks in its area.

However, the Icelandic government took the view that foreign fishermen, from the Faroe Islands, Belgium, West Germany and 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 improvements in the design and operation of trawlers allowed greater catches. The size and age of the cod caught had also steadily decreased, so there were fewer cod spawning, again reducing the stocks of cod which decreased by a third during the 1970's. Iceland insisted that catches would have to be reduced in order to preserve cod stocks. As Iceland's economic survival depended on fishing, it argued that other nations should bear the reduction of catches. Great Britain and the other fishing nations had different views. While they agreed that the number of cod had been decreasing, they were not convinced excessive fishing was the cause. Nor did they agree that there should be limits on catches. This position remained essentially unchanged through the three “wars”.

The Second Cod War

The second dispute ran from September 1972 to October1973. This time Iceland extended its fishing limits from 12 to 50 miles. This dispute was concluded with an agreement between the two countries that limited British fishing to certain areas inside the 50-mile limit, and imposed a 130,000 ton limit on the amount of fish that could be caught by British trawlers. This agreement was valid for two years and expired on November 13 1975. The Third “Cod War” started almost immediately and was the most violent of the three.

The Third Cod War

The Third Cod War was fought out between November 1975, and June 1976, and threatened to cause a rift in NATO. With the expiry of the 1973 agreement Iceland once again declared an expansion over its area of economic control, from 50 miles to 200 miles. Britain and the other fishing nations of the EEC argued that, whilst the international community was moving towards an agreed 200 mile limit, Iceland had no right to unilaterally enforce the limit. The stage was set for the third, and most “lively” of the three Cod Wars, in which the Royal Navy fought to defend the interests of fishermen from several European nations as well as those of Britain.

During this conflict, British and other European trawlers had their nets cut by Icelandic Coast Guard vessels and there were numerous ramming attacks between Icelandic ships, trawlers and British frigates. The conflict

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