The Cod Wars
The UK and Denmark (who ruled Iceland at the time) signed a treaty limiting their territorial waters to 3 nautical miles (1 nautical mile equals 1852 meters) from the shore. This treaty lasted only for 50 years, and meant that nobody else could fish. In the meantime, Iceland had become independent in 1944, declaring that its waters extended to 4 nautical miles. This was a problem—it included some places where British fishermen fished. Great Britain decided to ban Icelandic fish, but in response, the Soviet Union bought the Icelandic fish instead. The United States, seeing Iceland about to slip out of its grasp, also decided to fish from Iceland, and pressured Britain into dropping the embargo. That was the end for now, but it harbingered things to come.
In 1958, Iceland extended its territorial waters again, this time to 12 nautical miles. NATO came out against it, as did the British Government, who announced the Royal Navy would protect fishing boats fishing inside the new limits but outside the old ones. Now, Iceland had no navy. A protest quickly formed in front of the British Embassy in Iceland. The British Ambassador defied the protestors, taunting them and playing bagpipe music on his phonograph at them.
Several encounters between British and Icelandic ships threatened, but never caused, violence. Iceland pulled out its “trump card” when it threatened to leave NATO and kick US forces out of its territory unless their new sea boundary was recognized. That was a problem for the US because with Iceland out of NATO, there would be nothing stopping Soviet submarines from getting into the North Atlantic and threatening its East Coast shipping in the case of a war, just like German U-boats had done in both World Wars.
So, Britain was forced to the negotiating table yet again. It signed a treaty with Iceland recognizing the new 12-nautical-mile border, but giving it certain fishing rights within what it now acknowledged as Icelandic waters for a limited time.
This kept the peace until 1972, when Iceland decided, yet again, to extend its territorial waters to 50 nautical miles from the shore. This was opposed by nearly all the other European countries, but Iceland had an unlikely ally in the form of a few African countries who were swayed by its claim that it was simply regaining its sovereignty and fighting British colonialism. That said, Iceland’s new friends were unlikely to provide much more than moral and rhetorical support.
Fortunately, Iceland now had a new ship—the Aegir built in 1968, armed with one anti-aircraft gun, carrying one helicopter, and staffed by 19 men. That doesn’t sound very strong, but it had one secret weapon: the net cutter. Usually, trawlers drag nets behind them along the seabed or through the water, and the nets catch all the fish in the volume of water it passes through that are too big to swim through its holes. A net-cutter would obviously negate this effect, and Aegir would soon have the opportunity to put theirs to use.
The first incident occurred September 5, 1972. The Icelandic Coast Guard ordered a trawler fishing in the waters it claimed to identify itself. It responded by playing “Rule, Britannia!” on the radio. The patrol ship deployed its net cutter, and it sliced one of the wires connecting the nets to the trawler. The crewmen of the trawler swore and threw garbage at the Aegir.
Incensed, the Royal Navy was ordered into Icelandic waters. This outraged the Icelandic population so much there was a riot in which all the windows of the British Embassy were broken. The Icelandic government even demanded the US Air Force based on Iceland bomb the Royal Navy frigates that were now in its waters. The only fatality of the Cod Wars also occurred here: a crewman on the Aegir doing hull repairs was electrocuted when it collided with a British trawler and water flooded in. The conflict ended with Iceland playing the same card as it did in 1958: when it threatened to leave NATO, it left the US no choice but to force the UK to back down.
This quelled the conflict for a few years, but in 1975, Iceland went for the grand prize: it declared its limits to extend to 200 nautical miles from the shore. This naturally outraged Britain. An incident took place in Icelandic waters between Iceland and Britain. Both sides accused the other of attacking first, but the UN Security Council refused to intervene.
With no other choice, Iceland decided to sever diplomatic relations with Britain. This sort of thing had never happened between two NATO members before. Once more, Iceland threatened to withdraw from NATO if it did not get its 200 nautical miles. Britain realized that no longer having diplomatic relations with Iceland meant that nothing would stop Soviet submarines coming at them from the north. With some prodding from the other members of NATO, it gave in for the fourth time, and diplomatic relations were reestablished with recognition of the new maritime boundary.
In many ways, the Cod Wars are the perfect illustration of geopolitics—it shows us the importance of location, location, location. Because Iceland naturally intercepted the route from the Arctic Ocean to the North Atlantic, it had an amount of leverage totally out of proportion with its resources, military power, and population. It also made effective threats that it knew would hurt the target more than itself, if carried out.
Practically all the maritime disputes in the world today can be traced to the decision of this small nation to fight for a big maritime territory, because now a 200-nautical-mile boundary has become the international standard. Citizens of any coastal country may decide to love or hate Iceland for this, but they cannot deny the role it has played.