The First Cod War

London, 1883, and the respected biologist Thomas Huxley rose to address the assembled delegates at the International Fisheries Exhibition government. Since 1858 Huxley had been closely involved with the British fishing industry, first as an inspector of catches, then as chair of the Royal Commission on Sea Fisheries in 1863-4, and latterly as Inspector of Fisheries, a post he held from 1881-85. By any standards Huxley was an expert, which makes his subsequent statement all the more surprising to modern ears:

“… the cod fishery, the herring fishery, the pilchard fishery, and probably all the great sea fisheries are inexhaustible; that is to say that nothing we do seriously affects the number of fish. And any attempt to regulate these fisheries seems consequently, from the nature of the case to be useless.”

 We now know that Huxley was wrong, fisheries are definitely not inexhaustible and overfishing has seriously threatened fish stocks worldwide and not just in the home waters of the United Kingdom. In Huxley’s defence we should recognise that he had very little evidence upon which to go on. The British government only started to collect data on fishing catches in 1868 and though some evidence of declining stocks began to appear in the 1870’s this was largely obscured by the introduction of larger fishing smacks, fleeting (the use of boats to transfer catches to market while the trawlers stayed out at sea), the steam trawler, and the expansion of British fishermen into new fishing grounds. While the boats had to go further afield total tonnage of catches were maintained or increased.

The inevitable result of this was that British and other European fishermen were ultimately forced to move further away from their home waters to ensure a good catch and a profitable return. For British fishermen the open Atlantic was a natural area of extension and this quickly brought them into competition with Icelandic fishing boats working in their home waters around Iceland. In 1891 the Grimsby trawler Aquarius became the first to be recorded in Icelandic waters since 1532 when conflict between England and the Hanseatic League had briefly erupted following the murder of John the Broad in Grindavik, leading to British efforts being subsequently focused on the Newfoundland Grand Banks and later in Cape Cod.

As foreign competition in Icelandic waters intensified during the first half of the twentieth century Iceland sought to protect its fish stocks and the livelihood of its fishing fleets. With fish accounting for 90 per cent of her exports this was of paramount importance to Iceland. A 3-mile exclusive limit had been agreed between Britain and Denmark in 1901, but following independence from the Danish crown in 1944 Iceland quickly sought to extend this distance. The Icelandic government, the Althing, passed a Law Concerning the Scientific Conservation of the Continental Shelf Fisheries in 1948 giving Iceland exclusive rights to regulate all fisheries within their continental shelf, a zone that extended to a maximum of 55 miles from the coast.

Shortly after, Iceland withdrew from the 1901 3-mile treaty, imposing a 4-mile limit off Iceland’s north coast and banning all fishing, including by its home fleet, within those waters. British fishermen naturally objected; it would be the ruin of them they claimed and would lead to the end of fishing off Iceland. The British government, circumspect as usual, ignored the more strident calls for making use of the Royal Navy and the more moderate demands for restrictions on imports of Icelandic fished imports into Britain. To complicate matters a nascent NATO was keen to bring Iceland into its fold and restrict Soviet influence over the strategically located island. Elsewhere Britain took the decision to accept a 12-mile limit in Soviet waters around the Kola peninsula, and in 1951 the International Court of Justice found in favour of Norway’s claim to a 4-mile limit in their dispute with Britain.

Following the ruling Iceland’s Foreign Minister, Bjarni Benediktson, proposed that representatives from both countries meet to resolve their differences. The meeting was held in London in January 1952. The British failed to send a Minister, instead heading their delegation with a Foreign Office Under-Secretary. Iceland, who had sent their Fishery Minister, Ólafur Thors, who had already been Prime Minister of Iceland on three occasions saw this as a deliberate snub. The talks petered out without any real discussion taking place and on 15 May Iceland declared a new 4-mile fishing limit. By July the first British trawler had been arrested and in October British fishermen took action when the British Trawler Federation took matters into their own hands and declared an embargo on Icelandic trawlers landing their catch at British ports. Technically the embargo was illegal but it was also effective as 80 per cent of Iceland’s catch was usually exported to Britain.

Despite the 4-mile limit, and the arrest and fining of several British vessels fishing within it, Iceland’s waters were rich in fish and British trawlers continued to take good catches. In 1953 Iceland entered into a barter agreement with the Soviet Union, opening up a new market and alleviating the economic pressure of the unofficial British trade ban. Meanwhile the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation (OEEC) sought to achieve agreement between the parties, while the Foreign Office recommended to the British government that any attempt by Iceland to further extend the fishery limit should be met with the protection of British trawlers by Royal Navy warships. The OEEC negotiations produced some results with both parties reaching a draft agreement that gave de facto recognition to the 4-mile limit, a quota on Icelandic landings in British ports, and agreement that there would be no further extension of Iceland’s territorial waters until the forthcoming United Nations Law of the Sea Conference had been held in 1958.

Domestic politics in Iceland threatened to upset the new fragile status quo as a centre left coalition government entered into power after elections in 1956. To NATO’s consternation the new government contained some Communist Party members, including the Fisheries Minister. The United States, who had to that point remained neutral bystanders committed to a 3-mile limit, feared that their air base at Keflavik could be threatened opening the way to increased Soviet influence and presence in the North Atlantic. Iceland’s ability to raise loans in the West was curtailed and the British government was advised to do nothing about the landings embargo until a more sympathetic government was in place in Iceland. NATO and American fears proved groundless, not least because the Soviet invasion of Hungary in November 1956 brought Cold War tensions into stark relief.

By 1958 Iceland and Britain were largely at a stalemate with both hoping that the Law of the Sea Conference would resolve matters in an acceptable fashion. Despite efforts to reach agreement with over 20 proposals being placed on the table, none gained the necessary two-thirds majority and the conference broke up on 29 April without agreement on fishery limits. Iceland, who had already stated her intention of announcing a 12-mile limit before the conference began entered a period of negotiations with Britain, in which the latter refused a compromise of a 12-mile limit with fishing rights within the outer 6 miles. On 24 May 1958 Iceland announced that a 12-mile limit would be imposed from 1 September.


Britain meanwhile had already decided in principle that the trawler fleet would be protected and the Fishery Protection Squadron of the Royal Navy had drawn up the plans for Operation ‘Whippet’ which envisaged three fishing safe-havens off the coast of Iceland, respectively named ‘Butterscotch’, ‘Spearmint’, and ‘Toffeeapple’, each located between the 4 and 12 mile lines. The havens were to be 30 miles long and moveable according to seasonal needs with each to be guarded by a warship, with a fourth deployed for greater flexibility. A Royal Fleet Auxiliary tanker would be permanently stationed as a support vessel. The mission objectives stated in ‘Whippet’ were:

  1. To prevent interference with British fishing vessels on the high seas outside 4 miles and in particular between 4 and 12 miles from the Icelandic coast.
  2. To prevent arrest of British fishing vessels on the high seas outside 4 miles.
  3. To secure the release of any British fishing vessel so arrested.

Boarding of trawlers was seen as the main threat and in the Instructions to Skippers issued to trawler captains a number of actions to resist boarding were communicated. Short of the use of real weapons and causing actual bodily harm skippers were advised to use broom handles, fists, mops, ropes and other handy instruments; to throw pepper, flour, fish and oil; and to place floats, bobbins and other obstructions in the water to impede the approach of any Icelandic vessel.

Royal Navy instructions to Commanding Officers on the use of force advised that it should be avoided if possible, and only used if force had been used by the Icelandic vessel. Blank shot could be fired if an Icelandic vessel towing a British vessel refused to comply with an order to heave to, and in the scenario on which a British vessel was fired on the Navy could only return fire with the object of immobilising the Icelandic vessel’s gun, but not to sink her.

The Icelandic coastguard service could rely on seven surface vessels, each armed with a single gun, and two unarmed Catalina flying boats equipped with radar. Of their vessels only the Þór was really capable of boarding and towing and arrested trawler to port. The object of the coastguard was to police their waters and arrest as many British trawlers as possible. Exchanging fire with British warships was not to be considered and the use of force in arresting trawlers was to be kept to a minimum. If the Icelandic vessels came under fire they were to return temporarily to harbour. Despite the inequality in resources Iceland did have the benefit of operating in home waters which meant that the costs of operating were much lower than those of the Royal Navy, while the Icelandic vessels could return to port in bad weather and for supply and maintenance. While the presence of a warship would prevent arrests being made time and the weather were on their side and they could expect to encounter lone trawlers unprotected by the Navy against whom an arrest could be made.

What followed were months of cat and mouse on the high seas interspersed with flurries of activity as the Icelandic Coastguard sought to arrest British trawlers while the Royal Navy sought to intercept them. At 0800 on 2 September the trawler Northern Foam radioed that she was being arrested by boarding parties from the Þór and María Júlía. With the Northern Foam’s engines immobilised by the skipper HMS Eastbourne was able to come alongside and land her own boarding party on the trawler. Commodore Barry Anderson then went onboard the Þór where a forceful discussion took place between him and Captain Eiríkur Kristófferson, who insisted on his right to arrest the Northern Foam within the 12 mile limit under Icelandic law, while Anderson was equally insistent that Britain did not recognise the new Icelandic law and that the trawler should be released. Kristófferson refused to withdraw his boarding party and after discussion it was agreed that his men onboard the Northern Foam would be transferred to HMS Eastbourne.

By 1115 the trawler was fishing again. The Þór’s boarding party were to spend 10 hospitable days as the guests of the Royal Navy on HMS Eastbourne, refraining from eating any fish received from trawlers and caught within the 12 mile limit, before being landed at Keflavik village on the night of 12/13 September. A few weeks later Kristófferson and the Þór were once again at the heart of the action when she fired a shot across the bows of the trawler Harkness. HMS Russell prevented an arrest but when Kristófferson threatened to fire at Hackness again Lieutenant Commander Peter Corson of the Russell warned him that he would sink the Þór if he did. Discretion proved the better part of valour and the occasion passed off without further incident.


Hammond Innes , Oðinn and UK Tug


The next year saw a familiar pattern evolve. The Icelandic coastguard shadowed trawlers paying particular attention to any found within the 4-mile zone. On  several occasions warning shots were fired across a trawler’s bows.  Boarding was rarely accomplished and no trawlers were towed back to Icelandic ports. The trawlers Lord Montgomery and Valafell were both ordered into port by their owners for trial when they were arrested for fishing inside 4 miles.

By March 1960 the trawlers had withdrawn from Icelandic seas to coincide with the start of the Second Law of the Sea Conference. In Iceland the 1959 general election had returned a centre right coalition with whom it was hoped the issue of NATO and the Keflavik base could be avoided. However, international support for the 12 mile limit was growing and Britain felt that the chances of successfully defending its position were increasingly slim.  Once again the conference failed to reach a two-thirds majority in favour of a proposal to recognise a 12 mile limit with a ten year historic right to fish within the outer 6 miles.

In the absence of any agreement the British considered that the legal position of a 3 mile limit, with 4 miles tactitly recognised still applied. As a sop to Iceland the Government advised that British trawlers should remain outside 12 miles for a period of three months with fishery protection vessels to patrol outside the limit until further notice. Iceland announces that all charges against trawlers since 1 September 1958 would be waived which meant that they could now enter Icelandic ports or shelter close inshore without fear of arrest as long as their fishing gear was stowed within 12 miles.

Unsurprisingly the trawlers didn’t pay full attention to the 12 miles, preferring to follow the fish and risk the consequences. Both the Icelandic coastguard and the Royal Navy pursued a policy of warning trawlers who entered Iceland’s waters within 12 miles. In June Iceland announced that it would resume its policy of seeking to arrest any trawler found within the limit. The first attempt to do so occurred on 22 June when the Albert attempted to arrest the Thuringia, followed by nine other serious attempts to board trawlers within a three week period. Of these the most serious incident was the firing of a solid shot through the superstructure of the trawler Grimsby Town by the Oðinn, the only occasion in two and half years that a ship of either side opened fire with an intention to hit.

British Trawler Coventry City passes Icelandic Coast Guard Patrol vessel Albert off the Westfjords in 1958 during the first Cod War

British Trawler Coventry City passes Icelandic Coast Guard Patrol vessel Albert off the Westfjords in 1958 during the first Cod War

With the British Trawler Federations three month truce about to expire on 12 August 1960 the British Government managed to persuade them to extend the period by a further two months. Iceland responded by announcing its willingness to begin negotiations to resolve the matter. Talks began on 1 October and proceeded throughout the winter. Iceland remained firm in its commitment to the 12 mile limit and made it clear that their aim was to extend this to the edge of their continental shelf in due course, a distance of 50 miles. The greatest sticking point was Britain’s insistence on an agreement that any future dispute would be referred to the International Court of Justice, upon which Iceland was recalcitrant. On 28 February 1961 the Icelandic Government announced that a proposal to end the dispute would be put to the Althing. Nine days of debate followed after which the Government won the vote and defeated a vote of no confidence. On 11 May both Governments signed an agreement that ended the First Cod War.

As a naval operation it had been a British success. No British trawler had been successfully arrested at sea despite 84 attempts to do so by the Icelandic coastguard. No vessels on any side had sustained serious damage, and there had been no serious personal injuries resulting from any action by warships, gunboats or trawlers. British vessels had been able to fish relatively unhindered and overall catches were down by just 15 per cent for the period.

Politically and economically it was a British failure. The agreement stated that the British Government would no longer object to the 12 mile fishing limit, while British trawlers would be permitted to fish within the outer 6 miles in specified areas during specified times for a period of three years. Iceland would continue to work to implement the extension of its fisheries to take in the continental shelf but would give six months notice of any decision to do so, and agreed that any dispute over such an extension could be referred to the International Court of Justice. The latter clause was a limited success but the agreement was roundly condemned by the fishing industry and its supporters as a sell out. Two more increasingly acrimonious Cod Wars followed in 1972-73 and 1975-76. Both ended, as did the first, with the British Government accepting Icelandic positions that it had previously declared as unacceptable, and the resulting closure of Icelandic fisheries was the death knell of Britain’s declining distant-water fishing fleet.


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