In recent years, stand-offs between competing fishing fleets in the South China Sea have become a common occurrence. But in the 1950s and 1970s, British and Icelandic vessels routinely faced each other in the waters around Iceland in what came to be known as the ‘Cod Wars’.
The origins of the dispute stretch back into the 19th century, when advances in steam power extended the reach of fishing fleets. In 1944, Iceland gained independence from Denmark, and soon after pushed back its exclusive economic zone from three miles off its coast to four.
Britain refused to recognise the move and the spat rumbled on until 1956, when the International Court of Justice ruled in Iceland’s favour. 1956 was also the year that Britain’s ‘distant fishing’ industry peaked, with an annual catch of eight and a half million tons.
Two years later, on 1 September 1958, Iceland pushed the boundaries back again – this time to 12 miles. Again, Britain refused to recognise the new limits, and British trawlers carried on fishing regardless. The Icelandic coast guard harried the boats and the Royal Navy was dispatched to the area at great financial cost.
Warning shots were fired by both sides, and there was at least one instance of ramming, but there were no fatalities. After three months, Britain and Iceland agreed that territorial claims would be handled by the International Court of Justice, and Britain eventually recognised the new 12-mile zone.
However, the peace didn’t last long, and in the years to 1976, there were two more ‘cod wars’. By then, Iceland’s exclusive zone had grown to 200 miles, and Britain came to accept a limit on the amount of cod its fishing fleet could catch around Iceland.
The fishing ports of northern England, such as Grimsby and Hull, suffered as a result, and the local economies went into decline. In 2012, the government issued an apology and agreed to compensate those who had been turned out of work.