The Cod Wars were a series of confrontations between the UK and Iceland on fishing rights in the north Atlantic, starting in 1958 and finishing in 1976. While Brexit will give the UK an opportunity to take back control of its waters from the EU, there are fears it could reignite the country’s feud with Iceland over limits. It all started when the fishing boom, sparked by technological advancements in the 19th and early 20th centuries, started affecting fish stocks and Iceland decided to take action to stop foreign fishing in waters close to its shore.
It started by declaring a four-mile zone around its shores, but the UK hit back with a ban on the import of Icelandic-caught fish.
In 1958, after years of failed diplomacy, Iceland expanded its zone to 12 miles and banned foreign fleets from fishing in these waters at all.
The UK insisted this flouted international law and did not accept the limits, instead sending Royal Navy frigates to accompany vessels into the exclusion zone.
In 1961, the two countries finally came to an agreement to allow Iceland to keep its 12 mile zone in return for conditional access to UK boats ‒ the end of the First Cod War.
However, by 1971 Iceland was planning to cast the agreement aside and extend its zone again ‒ from 12 to 50 miles ‒ sparking the Second Cod War in September 1972.
The UK argued that this extension had “no basis in international law” and asserted its right to go to the International Court of Justice about it.
It was during the Second Cod War that one particularly galling argument was made by Iceland ‒ that it was suffering from “colonial exploitation” at the hands of the British.
Documents unearthed at the National Archives by Express.co.uk have revealed that in 1972 Icelandic diplomats were trying to win over African and Asian countries’ support for their view of the fisheries dispute.
An Icelandic observer attended a meeting of the Scientific Council of the Organisation for African Unity in Ibada, Nigeia and planned to send one to the meeting of the Afro-Asian legal Consultative Committee on law of the Sea questions in Lagos.
One British official wrote: “At the Ibadan meeting and in other contracts the Icelanders seem to have had some measure of success in their efforts.
“They have been representing that they are now suffering from much the same type of ‘colonial exploitation’ which claims that the countries of Africa and Asia have suffered in the past.
“Also in an attempt to gain support for their position in the dispute with us, the Icelanders have ranged themselves on the side of those who advocate a 12-mile territorial sea but with a zone of economic jurisdiction extending to 200 miles form the coast.”
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The “colonial” argument is particularly ironic given that the first settlers in Iceland were Scandinavians, many of whom had slaves from Scotland and Ireland.
While British diplomats regarded the International Court of Justice as the proper means of seeking a settlement to their dispute with the Icelandic, they recognised that Iceland’s lobbying could not go uncounted.
They sent their own observers to meetings, but found lobbying was an uphill battle, because Iceland’s “colonial” argument struck a chord with certain African and Asian countries.
What’s more, many of them favoured wide jurisdictions themselves, particularly for resources management such as fisheries.
One British official wrote: “We realise that, in general, African and Asian countries tend to be sympathetic toward the ideas that the Icelanders are advocating, although there have been recent indications that some ‒ The Ivory Coast, Ghana and Zaire have been mentioned ‒ may be inclined to a more moderate point of view.
“We therefore recognise that a statement of our side of the case may not be particularly well-received.”
They added: “It has to be recognised that less-developed countries tend to maintain that, for historical reasons, the cards in the pack of international law have been stacked against them by the major maritime powers.”
Iceland unilaterally extended its limits to 50 miles in September 1972, but the argument over fishing limits went on until a temporary agreement was signed in November 1973.
This agreement held out for a couple of years until Iceland again extended its limits ‒ to 200 miles, triggering the Third Cod War.
The Cod Wars finally came to an end when NATO stepped in to help resolve the issue.
This resulted in an agreement that was highly favourable to Iceland, because the tiny nation was strategically important to NATO in the Cold War.
As of 1982, UN convention dictates that ever country is entitled to an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that stretches out for up to 200 miles from its shore or to the median point between its shore and its neighbours (eg. the Irish Sea or the English Channel).
However, the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), enacted in 1983, means that boats from every member state can fish in each other’s waters, except from inside the 12 mile territorial waters.
Meanwhile Iceland has stayed out of the EU, but is in the European Economic Area (EEA), European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and the Schengen Agreement.
The CFP has meant that over 60 percent of the fish caught in UK fishing waters is caught by foreign boats.
However, the UK left the EU on January 31 and is looking to finish negotiations for its future relationship by the end of the year.
EU leaders are pushing for continued access to UK fishing waters, while British fishermen are demanding Boris Johnson take back control of it, to make good on his promises to them.
That said, there are concerns that dropping out of the CFP could potentially spark tension over fishing limits with Iceland again.
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