Who would have guessed that something as harmless as fishing spots could incite wars between two nations? In a way, that’s exactly what happened between Iceland and the United Kingdom during the three Cod Wars.
In the 1950s and 1970s, the island-neighbour nations engaged in naval conflicts over territorial waters. Iceland had extended the borders of its own waters into what the UK regarded as international waters.
The problem? Fishing ships from the UK and other countries had used this section of the sea for decades, and the action by Iceland would damper their fishing industry.
Why Go To War?
In the early 20th century, much of Iceland was heavily dependent on income from the fishing industry. With the recent invention of the steam-powered boat, fishing trawlers could venture farther from land, so the Icelandic Government increased the distance from the mainland in which waters were considered Icelandic territory.
The British Government, realising that this action could set a precedent other countries might follow, ignored the change in boundaries and ordered warships to protect their trawlers.
Several incidents occurred in the 1950s, including the collision of an Icelandic patrol vessel and the British HMS Russell. Soon after that, the Icelandic patrol vessel María Júlía fired upon the British trawler Kingston Emerald, forcing it to retreat.
Eventually, the two sides essentially agreed to disagree. They determined that if any future disagreements were to arise, they would consult with the International Court of Justice.
However, two decades later, a different political party led the Icelandic government, which then ignored the treaty. This time, the boundary was expanded to 50nm from the mainland, more than four times the distance of the first disputed boundary. This led to the second cod war.
Several violent incidents occurred and during this war, the Icelandic coast guard started to use net cutters to cut the trawling lines of non-Icelandic vessels fishing within the new exclusion zone. The British government sent more warships to protect their fishing boats.
After a series of talks within Nato, British warships were later recalled. An agreement was signed which limited British fishing activities to certain areas inside the 50nm (93 km) limit, resolving the dispute that time.
This agreement expired in November 1975, and the third "Cod War" began.
Resolution of the Conflict
In 1975 Iceland again increased its demands and declared that the ocean up to 200 nautical miles (370 km) from its coast fell under Icelandic authority.
There were several incidents of ramming by Icelandic ships and British trawlers, tugboats and frigates. British trawlers also saw their nets cut by the Icelandic coast guard. This was only a minor inconvenience to the British, but the government of Iceland had a strong strategic position.
Iceland threatened to close the NATO base at Keflavík, which would have severely threatened NATO’s position in the Atlantic Ocean during the United States’ conflict with the Soviet Union. As a result, the British, under pressure from the United States, agreed to relent to Iceland.
200 nm is now the sea-zone prescribed to nations by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
All in all, both the British and Icelandic sides experienced one casualty each. A British fisherman was killed when a heavy rope was cut and recoiled into his body, and an Icelandic Coast Guard engineer was electrocuted when his welding equipment was flooded with seawater.