In the fisheries of the North Atlantic, Cod was king. For hundreds of years, fisherman would sail in the waters around Newfoundland, Greenland, and Iceland on the hunt for this important food source. Because of the importance of this fish for local fishermen, policies were enacted to limit outside influence on local waters. Following World War I, these policies led to hostilities between Iceland and the United Kingdom regarding access to the cod fisheries in the North Atlantic, sparking one of the oddest wars in military history.
In the 1950s, Iceland extended its fishery boundaries on the coast from four nautical miles to 12. This move limited British fishermen from exploiting the cod-rich waters around Iceland. British fishermen had been sailing north to the coast of Iceland since the 15th century. Cod was an important resource for British fishermen and the move would have lasting consequences. In response to the fishery extension, the United Kingdom deployed warships off the coast of Iceland to protest the move. On 4 September 1958, the Icelandic Coast Guard patrol ship Aegir collided with the HMS Russell, after attempting to ward off a British trawler. The two sides played cat and mouse in the northern waters, with Icelandic vessels chasing off British fishermen. The two sides came to a peaceful resolution in 1961, and Iceland allowed British trawlers to fish the outer fishery zone during certain parts of the year.
Iceland again extended its fishing zone in 1972, this time extending the boundaries out to 50 nautical miles. Their goal was to conserve cod stocks in local waters and increase Iceland’s share of the fish caught. The British opposed the extension and again deployed warships to protect British trawlers. To counter the British trawling nets, the Icelanders deployed net cutters behind their vessels. On 18 January 1973, Iceland managed to cut 18 British trawling nets, forcing British fisherman to abandon Icelandic waters. In response, aircraft would patrol over the fishing zone, reporting to fishermen where Icelandic vessels were located to keep their nets from getting cut. On 29 August, an Icelandic Coast Guardsman was killed when his ship collided with a British frigate. His death was the only fatality during the Cod Wars.
Another agreement was reached, allowing for British fishermen to catch 117,000 tons of cod. A third Cod War erupted in November 1975 following Iceland’s renewed proposal to extend the fishing boundaries out to 200 nautical miles. Britain deployed 22 warships to Icelandic waters. Following the threat to close the important NATO airbase at Keflavik, both sides agreed to terms that would limit British fishermen from fishing in the 200 nm exclusionary zone. As a result, British fisheries suffered from the loss and thousands of fishermen lost their jobs. By the early 1990s, the cod populations in the North Atlantic collapsed, resulting in fishermen from Newfoundland to the Faroe Islands losing their jobs. In the decades since the collapse, the cod population has not rebounded, and a moratorium remains in place on cod fishing.