Remember the ‘Cod Wars’ – the series of bitter confrontations between the UK and Iceland over disputed fishing rights in the North Atlantic?
Beginning in the late 1950s, there were three main ‘Cod Wars’ – a term coined by an English journalist – finally ending in June 1976. One of the most serious incidents of these tense times came 42 years ago today, on December 11th, 1975, when an Icelandic coastguard ship opened fire on unarmed British vessels.
Details of the incident were hotly disputed. The Icelandic authorities claimed their vessel had only opened fire after being deliberately rammed by two of the British ships, including one which was three times its size. It had no option but to fire, first with a blank round then a live one, as a deterrent against further deliberate ramming by the British ships.
The British countered that the Icelandic ship had threatened to fire on one of the British vessels unless it stopped, presumably so its crew could be arrested. It was the Icelandic vessel which had struck a British ship as it tried to pull alongside to board her. It then veered off and fired without warning from a distance of just 100 yards.
Whatever the truth of it, the Icelandic vessel came off by far the worst, suffering significant damage, while the British ships were largely unscathed. They were not even trawlers, but two oil rig supply vessels, Star Aquarius and Star Polaris, and an oceangoing tug, Lloydsman, which had been resupplying them.
They were sheltering from a force nine gale, taking refuge within Iceland’s 12-nautical-mile territorial waters, which was common practice for ships in distress or danger. Even so, the Icelandic coastguard ship, Thor, was sent out to intercept them and order them to leave Icelandic waters.
The live round from Thor his Star Aquarius high on the bow, but caused little real damage. In contrast, Thor was close to sinking following the collisions and made for the nearest port for urgent repairs, while the three British vessels headed for the safety of their home waters.
Tensions between the two nations were immediately heightened and the Royal Navy dispatched frigates to patrol close to Icelandic waters, protecting British fishing vessels and acting as a visible deterrent to any Icelandic response. Both countries also had representatives attending a Nato conference in Brussels, where they had been due to meet for discussions over the Cod War. Those plans were scuttled by news reports of the hostile incident, which both sides denounced as regrettable and a matter of grave concern.
The third Cod War saw a total of 55 ramming incidents between Icelandic and British vessels, including Royal Navy ships, almost always with each side blaming the other. However, it was rare for a ship to open fire on another and took the prospect of all-out hostilities to a new level. It was several months before tensions began to subside and talks resumed between the two nations.
An end to the third Cod War was eventually negotiated by Nato on June 6th, 1976. Iceland had threatened to withdraw from Nato unless it intervened, which would have meant the loss of a key Nato base in Iceland. As with the two previous Cod Wars, the negotiated agreement favoured Iceland, whose national economy was massively reliant on its sea fishing industry, with few other natural resources.
Under the terms of the deal Britain was limited to using just 24 trawlers at any one time, operating within a 200-nautical-mile zone and with a total catch limited to 30,000 tons. It had a massive impact on Britain’s North Sea fishing ports, decimating their fishing fleets and costing an estimated 9,000 jobs. However, the limits helped stocks of cod in the North Sea to recover over the following decades. They had become seriously depleted through overfishing.