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HMS Scylla collides with OdinnThe cod wars were a series of disputes between Britain and Iceland running from the 1950s to the 1970s over the rights to fish in Icelandic waters. Although it was never a war in the conventional sense of the word (the massive and well-equipped Royal Navy would have easily defeated the tiny Icelandic Navy), the peak of the Cod Wars saw thirty seven Royal Navy warships mobilised to protect British trawlers fishing in the disputed territory. While the wars were eventually settled through diplomatic means there was conflict between British naval vessels and Icelandic ships out at sea. The Cod Wars showed how seriously nations took their fishing rights, and the lengths they would go to in order to access rich fishing grounds.

The first Cod War took place in autumn 1958 and was caused by a dispute over who could fish in the seas surrounding Iceland. In the late 1950s a country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) – the area of sea that a country controlled and could fish in exclusively – only extended four miles out to sea from a country’s coastline.Net Cutter British trawlers could therefore fish very close to Iceland and take advantage of the fertile fishing grounds that surrounded the country. Iceland – worried that foreign vessels were overexploiting their fisheries – brought in a new law that extended their EEZ to twelve miles. Britain was not happy and chose to ignore this new limit and continued to fish up to the original four-mile limit. The situation escalated when Britain sent warships to protect its trawlers fishing in the disputed areas. This was seen as a David versus Goliath conflict, as Britain had, at that time, the second most powerful navy in the world (after the USA), while Iceland had little more than patrol boats and militarised coast guard vessels to protect itself. A number of incidents took place including Icelandic patrol boats firing across the bows of British trawlers in an effort to force them to leave the new zone, and Britain threatening to sink any Icelandic vessels that attacked British trawlers.USS Tacoma Eventually, Britain accepted that it had no right to stop Iceland extending the EEZ to twelve miles and backed down. There was also an agreement that future conflicts would be settled at the International Court of Justice to avoid further conflict.

The second cod war took place in September 1972 when Iceland ignored the agreement about disputes being settled via diplomatic means and unilaterally extended its EEZ from twelve to fifty miles. Again Britain refused to recognise this new limit leading to Iceland using its patrol boats to chase British and West German trawlers out of its newly declared exclusive zone. The Icelandic coast guard then started using net-cutters to destroy the trawling nets of the British fishing vessels that ventured inside the zone. Soon the Royal Navy was sent to protect the British trawlers. Confrontations took place for over a year with British trawlers continuing to have their nets cut by Icelandic ships and Royal Navy ships being rammed by Icelandic coast guard boats.

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