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Case Number: 7

Case Identifier: CODWAR

Case Name: Cod Dispute Between Iceland and the United Kingom

Case Author: David Kassebaum, April 10, 1997



1. Abstract

What do fish have to do with NATO? Quite a bit, it turns out. During the mid-1970s, a dispute over the amount of cod caught and where those fish could be caught threatened to disrupt the NATO alliance. At that time, Iceland and Great Britain conducted a "Cod War" in which British frigates clashed with Icelandic Coast Guard vessels over fishing rights. With several rammings between these two forces, Iceland broke off diplomatic contact with Great Britain. Public opinion on Iceland turned against the NATO base at Keflavik and resolutions were tabled calling for Iceland to close the base. Due to this threat, the Secretary-General of NATO used his good offices in an attempt to resolve the conflict. After several months of wrangling, all the while continuing to pursue their collision-marked "war," Iceland and Great Britain were able to reach an agreement. Britain agreed to follow Iceland's regulations establishing a 200 mile economic exclusion zone, and to limit it cod catch to 50,000 tons. After six months, this agreement lapsed, and Britain lost its rights to fish in Icelandic waters. By that time, British fishermen had adapted to different fishing areas.

2. Description


In November, 1975, the third Cod War between Great Britain and Iceland began. This dispute centered on Iceland's decision to extend its zone of control over fishing from 50 miles beyond its shores to 200 miles. Great Britain did not recognize Iceland's authority in this matter and so continued fishing inside the disputed area. Iceland deployed 8 ships, six Coast Guard vessels and two Polish-built stern trawlers converted into Coast Guard ships to enforce her control over fishing rights. In response, Great Britain deployed a total of twenty-two frigates (although no more than six to nine frigates at one time), seven supply ships, nine tug-boats and three auxiliary ships to protect its 40 fishing trawlers. While few shots were fired during the seven-month conflict, several ships were rammed on both sides, causing damage to the vessels and a few injuries to the crews.

This was the third time Iceland and Great Britain had clashed over fishing rights, particularly over the rights to fish for cod. The first "war" occurred in 1958 when Britain was unable to prevent Iceland from extending its fishing limits from 4 miles to 12 miles off Iceland's coast. The second dispute was in 1972-1973, when Iceland extended its limits to 50 miles. (1) This conflict was concluded with an agreement between the two countries that limited British fishing to certain areas inside the 50 mile limit. In addition, Britain agreed that British vessels could not catch more than 130,000 tons of fish annually.(2) This agreement was valid for two years, and expired on November 13, 1975, when the third "Cod War" started.

The Icelandic position was similar in all three conflicts. The major point was that Iceland depends on its fishing industry more than any other state in the world. Iceland has few natural resources, no timber, no fuel, little agricultural potential, and no mining interests. Its economy is uniquely dependent on fishing for survival and for exports, to fund the imports needed for the other parts of the economy. "Fish and fish products of one form or another...have on average accounted for 89.71 per cent of Iceland's total export in each year during the period 1881-1976." (3) Iceland argued, therefore, that it had an overwhelming need to ensure the survival of the fish stocks in its area.

In addition, Iceland stated that foreign fishermen, from the Faroe Islands, Belgium, West Germany, but mostly from Great Britain, were causing an over-exploitation of the fish stocks around Iceland. The tonnage of fish catches had been decreasing since a peak in the 1950's, even though technological improvements allowed greater catches to fishing vessels. The size and age of the cod caught had also steadily decreased over the years. This meant that there were fewer cod spawning, thus reducing the total population of cod existing. Stocks of cod had decreased by a third during the 1970's.(4) Iceland stated that fish catches would have to be reduced. Due to Iceland's dependence on fishing, it argued that other nations should bear the reduction of catches. Since Icelandic fishermen were able to catch all of the allowable tonnage of fish, all foreign fishing activity took fish from Icelandic fishermen, not in addition to the fish caught by Iceland.

 Iceland was concerned that the cod might follow the pattern of the Icelandic herring, which during the 1960s almost disappeared. From a population of 8.5 million tons in 1958, the herring population declined to almost nothing by 1970. This decline could have been prevented by adequate conservation methods. This fear prompted conservation efforts by Iceland.

Iceland had attempted in the past to organize international conferences on establishing conservation regulations on fishing, with no response.(5) Iceland had also offered suggestions to the United Nations conference on the Law of the Sea regarding regulating fishing, such as closing nursery grounds to fishermen, placing quotas on tonnage of fish caught, and rotating preservations areas, where no fishing would occur. Most of these ideas were ignored, or retired to endless committees. In order to enforce these conservation efforts, Iceland saw its 200 mile economic exclusion zone as necessary. No nation would be able to fish within 200 miles of Iceland without Iceland's permission. In addition, the Icelandic Coast Guard would be able to board any ship inside that limit, in order to determine its compliance with Icelandic fishing regulations. With marine biologists predicting that if these efforts were ignored there would have been no cod left by 1980,(6) Iceland became convinced that it had to act unilaterally. Due to the failure of the international arena regarding the Icelandic herring, Iceland acted on its own to protect the cod.

In addition to the survival of the cod and the survival of Iceland arguments, there was the legal argument. In the United Nations conferences on the Law of the Sea, international opinion had tended towards a 200 mile economic exclusion zone, with a 12 mile limit on territorial waters. At the first meeting of substance on the Law of the Sea, from July to August of 1974, more than 100 States supported the right of coastal States to establish an Exclusive Economic Zone of up to 200 nautical miles from baselines.(7) This included Great Britain. Iceland stated that it was merely enforcing what would soon be an international law and that it was following precedents set by other nations.

Great Britain had different opinions. While it agreed that the number of cod had been decreasing, Britain was not convinced over-fishing was the cause, nor over what the limit on the catch should be. Iceland based its limit of 230,000 tons of cod allowed on how many four-month old cod were caught in sample catches. Great Britain based its proposal for 280,000 tons of cod on samples of older fish. Little was actually known, however, about the whole ecology of the fishery stocks, let alone the relationship between what numbers of what age of fish caught and the effect on the spawning population. Britain also argued that, while the international system was arriving at an agreed 200 mile limit, Iceland had no right to unilaterally enforce the limit.

Internal Politics:

On June 30, 1974, elections to the Althing, Iceland's governing body, were held. The result was a tie between parties of the left/center and parties on the right. Each held 30 seats in the Althing.(8) A government was formed that consisted of a new prime minister, from the parties on the right, but that retained the previous prime minister and other members of the earlier administration. The result was a government that had little flexibility in its policies.

One of the policies that the incoming parties had stated was the extension of Iceland's control over fishing rights from 50 to 200 nautical miles from Iceland's coast. To carry out this policy, regulations were passed extending control to 200 miles, to take force on October 15, 1975. Great Britain was exempt from this enforcement date, because the treaty that had ended the previous Cod War of 1973 lasted until November 14, 1975. After that date, the new regulations would apply to Britain as well.

Fishermen from a number of countries (including Belgium, the Faroe Islands, France and Norway) complied with the new regulations with little disturbance. The West German fleet tried to continue fishing inside the 200 mile limit, but were prevented, for the most part, by the Icelandic Coast Guard. When the limit became applicable to the British fishermen, however, the third Cod War began.

In Britain, the fishing fleets in Icelandic waters were based in a few ports. While the majority of the British population cared little for cod fishing, it was a major factor in the economy of Humberside, Fleetwood, Aberdeen and North Shields. All of these towns were suffering from high employment during the mid-1970s. A reduction in their ability to catch cod would cause high short-term unemployment (about 9,000 jobs would be lost), with lasting unemployment for some.(9) These fish-dependent jobs caused Great Britain to attempt to protect the fishing fleet after Iceland's declaration.

The Conflict

As noted above, the conflict lasted for seven months. Icelandic Coast Guard vessels attempted to force British trawlers to stop fishing inside the 200 mile limit. In this effort, they deployed a trawlwire cutter (photo), built by two Icelandic ironsmiths, to cut the fishing net loose from the offending vessel.

In order to protect their fishermen, the British established protective "boxes," inside which their trawlers operated. British frigates patrolled the edge of these boxes, in an attempt to prevent Icelandic vessels from entering. When the Coast Guard acted to enforce Iceland's regulations, rammings were frequent. Each side blamed the other in such collisions. Both parties had abilities that should have enabled them to avoid a collision, according to the opposite party at least. The Icelanders pointed to speed and size of the British frigates, while the British mentioned the Icelandic vessels' thick hulls and the skill of the Icelandic captains.

While all sources agree that rammings occurred, there are few reports of any shots being fired. One report mentions an unarmed British tug, the Lloydsman, seeking shelter from a gale two miles off Iceland, being fired upon by the Thor, an Icelandic Coast Guard vessel. Iceland claimed that the Thor fired one shot that struck home, while the British stated that three shots were fired that all missed.(10)

After multiple rammings, Iceland decided to break off diplomatic relations with Great Britain in February 19, 1976. This immediately brought into question Iceland's place in NATO. How were two states that did not have diplomatic relations supposed to be allies? Newspapers in Iceland began demanding the removal of the NATO base at Keflavik. Several anti-NATO demonstrations occurred, and road blocks occasionally appeared to hinder the movement of American technicians to and from the base. Members of the Althing tabled resolutions calling for the removal of the Keflavik base and all American personnel from the island.(11)

This base occupied a key position in NATO strategy, it was supposed to protect Atlantic shipping in the event of a Soviet attack. The loss of this base would be a blow to NATO. This action on the part of Iceland brought NATO into the conflict, in an effort to resolve the dispute peacefully.

International Actions

The United Nations' Security Council was consulted, by the request of Iceland, in an attempt to resolve the dispute. Iceland brought a specific complaint concerning a particularly violent collision incident that occurred on December 11, 1975, in which it was alleged that several British naval vessels repeatedly rammed an Icelandic Coast Guard vessel. Great Britain stated that unarmed British civilian support vessels were attempting to obtain shelter from severe weather when they entered Icelandic waters. These vessels were then attacked by the Coast Guard. The alleged rammings were a result of maneuvering by Icelandic boats that made a collision inevitable. The Security Council took no action on this issue, but resolved to "remain seized of the situation."(12)

In January, 1976, Iceland requested a meeting of NATO to discuss the Cod War. About the same time, the United States offered to mediate between Iceland and Great Britain.(13) Both NATO and the US were very concerned over Iceland's unofficial threat to closed the NATO base at Keflavik if the conflict with Great Britain continued.

While the US offer to mediate was rejected, the Secretary- General of NATO, Dr. Joseph Luns, was able to negotiate several meetings between the prime ministers of both countries. Most of the negotiations revolved around the maximum allowable cod catch for Great Britain. At the beginning of the conflict, Britain wanted to catch 110,000 tons, while Iceland offered 65,000 tons. During the negotiations, Iceland started by offering an even lower position of 45,000 tons. The two countries went back and forth for about five months, wrangling over how much fish could be caught and where.

This was in contrast to the agreements Iceland negotiated with other countries that had been fishing in Icelandic waters. Agreements with West Germany and Belgium were made in 1975, with both countries limiting their cod catch, West Germany to 5,000 tons and Belgium to 1,500 tons. In 1976, agreements were made with Norway in March and with the Faroe Islands in May, and these countries also limited their cod catch.(14)

After the use of the Secretary-General of NATO and the Norwegian Foreign Minister as intermediaries during May, 1976, Iceland and Great Britain were finally able to come to an agreement on June 2, 1976. The maximum allowable catch for Great Britain was set at 50,000 tons, 15,000 less than Iceland had offered at the start of the Cod War. The agreement also limited the British to 24 trawlers allowed inside the 200 mile limit at any one time. There were four conservation areas that were completely closed to all British fishing. In addition, Icelandic patrol vessels were allowed to halt and inspect British trawlers suspected of violating the agreement.(15) The duration of the agreement was 6 months, after which Great Britain had no right to fish inside the 200 mile zone.

3. Duration: COMPLETE (1975-76)

4. Location

The area within 200 nautical miles of Iceland now would experience reduced fishing, with various sections off-limits to all fishing, on a rotating basis.

Continent: Europe

Region: Northern Europe

Country: Iceland
The geography of the Icelandic region

5. Actors: Iceland and UK

II. Environment Aspects

6. Type of Environmental Problem: Species Loss Sea

7. Type of Habitat: Ocean

8. Act and Harm Sites:

Act Site       Harm Site           Example

Commons        Iceland             Changing Territorial Waters

III. Conflict Aspects

9. Type of Conflict: Interstate

10. Level of Conflict: Low

While there was actual violence during this conflict, there were no reported deaths, and few injuries. The "war" consisted of numerous rammings between Icelandic and British vessels, and some reported gunfire, but there were no fatalities as a result of this violent activities.

11. Fatality Level of Dispute: 0

III. Environment and Conflict Overlap

12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics: Direct

The two countries both had a demand for the same resource. Great Britain is a much more powerful state and so believed that it could use its power to resolve the conflict to its liking. So, Britain pushed for a conflict. In this case, since Britain did not feel able to use all of its power, Iceland was ultimately the more powerful state. A very basic system diagram of the causes of the conflict would like this:
Resource Demand------------> Conflict <-------------Power Imbalance

13. Level of Strategic Interest: Bilateral

14. Outcome of Dispute: Compromise

IV. Related Information and Sources

15. Related ICE and TED Cases

16. Relevant Websites and Literature

Websites About Cod

Literature "Now, the Cod Peace," Time, June 14, 1976. p. 37
Jonsson, Hannes Friends in Conflict, Hurst & Co., London, 1982. p. 152
The Economist, November 29, 1975. p. 94
Blair, Jon "No cod left by 1980..." The Times, January 24, 1976. p. 12
"Trawlermen forecast loss of 9,000 jobs" The Times, May 31, 1976. p. 1
"The War for Cod," Time, December 29, 1975. p. 25
UN Chronicle, January, 1976. 24-6
"US offers to mediate in cod war" The Times, January 11, 1976


(1) "Now, the Cod Peace," Time, June 14, 1976. p. 37
(2) Jonsson, Hannes Friends in Conflict, Hurst & Co., London, 1982. p. 152
(3) Ibid., p. 7
(4) The Economist, November 29, 1975. p. 94
(5) Jonsson, Hannes Friends in Conflict, Hurst & Co., London, 1982. p. 51-52
(6) Blair, Jon "No cod left by 1980..." The Times, January 24, 1976. p. 12
(7) Jonsson, Hannes Friends in Conflict, Hurst & Co., London, 1982. p. 160
(8) Ibid., p. 158
(9) "Trawlermen forecast loss of 9,000 jobs" The Times, May 31, 1976. p. 1
(10) "The War for Cod," Time, December 29, 1975. p. 25
(11) Jonsson, Hannes Friends in Conflict, Hurst & Co., London, 1982. p. 174
(12) UN Chronicle, January, 1976. 24-6
(13) "US offers to mediate in cod war" The Times, January 11, 1976.
(14) Jonsson, Hannes Friends in Conflict, Hurst & Co., London, 1982. p. 178
(15)"Now, the Cod Peace," Time, June 14, 1976. p. 37
(16) Wirecutter and Icelandic Region photos from: Jonsson, Hannes Friends in Conflict, Hurst & Co., London, 1982. 

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November, 1997