Cod Wars Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Iceland’s efforts to control fishing in the waters surrounding that nation raised ongoing disputes from 1958 to 1976 over the control, regulation, and use of natural resources, especially codfish. Ultimately, Great Britain recognized Iceland’s claim to regulate fishing in waters up to two hundred miles from Iceland’s shores.

Summary of Event

Iceland has few natural resources and so imports almost everything. To fund imports, Iceland depends extensively on exporting fish and fishing-related products. Indeed, from 1881 to 1976, fishing-related products constituted 80-90 percent of Iceland’s total exports; the proportion of the nation’s exports accounted for by such products remained at 58 percent as late as 1991. When the supply, or stock, of fish began to decline in the 1950’s, Iceland extended its territorial waters and “exclusive economic zone” waters to restrict the fishing operations of ships from other countries. Each time Iceland extended its control over fishing and access, the move provoked disputes. Cod Wars (1972-1976) Icelandic Cod Wars (1972-1976) Fishing industry;Cod Wars [kw]Cod Wars (Sept. 1, 1972-June 2, 1976) [kw]Wars, Cod (Sept. 1, 1972-June 2, 1976) Cod Wars (1972-1976) Icelandic Cod Wars (1972-1976) Fishing industry;Cod Wars [g]Europe;Sept. 1, 1972-June 2, 1976: Cod Wars[00820] [g]Iceland;Sept. 1, 1972-June 2, 1976: Cod Wars[00820] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Sept. 1, 1972-June 2, 1976: Cod Wars[00820] [c]Animals and endangered species;Sept. 1, 1972-June 2, 1976: Cod Wars[00820] [c]Environmental issues;Sept. 1, 1972-June 2, 1976: Cod Wars[00820] Luns, Joseph Wilson, Harold Hallgrímsson, Geir

Icelanders believed that overfishing was depleting the stocks of fish surrounding Iceland and reducing the size and age of caught fish, especially cod. The catching of younger, smaller fish means that fewer fish are left to reproduce, thereby worsening the decline of fish populations. Indeed, annual fish hauls declined steadily after a peak in the 1950’s, even though innovative equipment and techniques made it possible to catch more fish than before. Icelanders further believed that fishermen from elsewhere should reduce their catches in order to preserve Iceland’s lifeblood. Other nations, especially Great Britain, conceded that fish populations in the northern Atlantic Ocean were decreasing, but they did not agree that overfishing was the cause or that reducing fish catches was a solution. Also, restricted fishing threatened many jobs in the already beleaguered British fishing industry. British fishermen, now fishing farther north because of earlier overfishing of herring in waters nearer Great Britain, often encountered the greatest opposition from the Icelandic coast guard. Coast Guard, Iceland

The First Cod War began on September 1, 1958, when Iceland extended its “territorial waters” from four miles to twelve miles off Iceland’s shores to regulate fishing and prevent overfishing in those waters. The British, unable to prevent Iceland from extending its fishing limits, finally acknowledged Iceland’s claim in November, 1958.

The Second Cod War erupted on September 1, 1972, when Iceland extended its national “fishery limit” from twelve miles to fifty miles. For the first four days following this move, ships from the Icelandic coast guard tried to escort foreign trawlers from the newly claimed Icelandic territory. On September 5, Iceland for the first time used “trawl cutters” to cut the fishing nets trailing behind trawlers within the fifty-mile limit. During this dispute the coast guard cut at least eighty-two trawling nets.

By May, 1973, British fishing crews demanded protection, and British frigates and towboats arrived shortly after. The summer witnessed a series of setbacks for the British, however. In July, global multilateral negotiations on fishing and fishing limits revealed a strong consensus for a two-hundred-mile exclusive economic zone Exclusive economic zones extending from national shorelines. In August, the first casualty of the Second Cod War occurred, the accidental electrocution of an Icelandic sailor. On September 11, the Icelandic government announced it would end diplomatic relations with Great Britain if British warships and towboats did not immediately withdraw. Iceland would also consider withdrawing from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization North Atlantic Treaty Organization;Cod Wars (NATO). Dr. Joseph Luns, secretary-general of NATO, arrived in Iceland on September 16 to begin mediating a solution to the dispute. On September 22, a television crew filmed an incident in which a British ship violently rammed an Icelandic coast guard ship. In the eyes of the world, Iceland suddenly seemed like the scrappy underdog in this confrontation.

The Second Cod War effectively ended on October 3, 1973, when Great Britain withdrew its warships in accordance with terms of the Luns-mediated plan. Officials from Iceland and Great Britain signed an agreement on November 8. Great Britain, again unable to prevent Iceland from asserting its authority, recognized Iceland’s claims; in addition, Britain agreed to limit its catch to 130,000 tons annually and to fish for two years only in restricted areas within the fifty-mile limit. The agreement was formally concluded when the Icelandic parliament passed the necessary legislation on November 13, 1973.

The Third Cod War started immediately after the two-year agreement ended in November, 1975. Iceland again extended its economic control, this time claiming an exclusive economic zone extending two hundred miles from the shoreline. Iceland believed that it was confronting a national economic, ecological, and political crisis. Icelanders feared that the rapid decline in the stock of cod (which decreased by one-third during the 1970’s) foreshadowed a disastrous change such as that seen previously in the stock of herring (the annual catch of herring declined from 8.5 million tons in 1958 to almost nothing in 1970). Ecologists and marine biologists argued that the herring could have been protected through adequate, vigorous conservation. Other scientists predicted that codfish would disappear by 1980 without strong regulation and conservation.

For many years, Iceland had encouraged international efforts to establish fishing regulations and new fishing practices, but other nations had entirely ignored Iceland’s calls. Icelandic officials concluded that Iceland alone must enforce such conservation. Because Icelandic fishing crews could catch the total annual limit of fish, Icelanders believed that all foreign fishing operations should cease in the waters surrounding Iceland. Further, many nations were moving toward a norm of twelve miles of territorial waters and two hundred miles of exclusive economic territory. Even Great Britain supported this two-hundred-mile norm for other issues.

During the Third Cod War, Icelandic coast guard ships cut trawlers’ nets, and ships from both sides rammed each other, often repeatedly. In total, Iceland deployed sixteen vessels. The British sent forty-one ships, including twenty-two frigates, to support British trawlers, although no more than nine frigates were in the vicinity at any one time.

The diplomatic initiatives undertaken by the two sides were fierce. Iceland approached the U.S. government to buy several gunboats, but the United States declined. Iceland then asked the Soviet government about buying frigates. In mid-January, 1976, British prime minister Harold Wilson invited Icelandic prime minister Geir Hallgrímsson to London for personal negotiations, but these quickly failed. Shortly after, in February, 1976, Icelandic officials ended diplomatic relations with Great Britain and threatened to close the NATO base at Keflavik, an essential facility for protecting the northern Atlantic Ocean from the Soviet military. U.S. officials offered to mediate the dispute, but Iceland rejected the offer. By May, 1976, naval challenges became bolder, more aggressive, and more violent as ships rammed each other often.

Finally, with Joseph Luns of NATO mediating, Iceland and Great Britain reached an agreement on June 2, 1976. The British government agreed to withdraw its warships and to accept sharp restrictions on its fishing for six months. Thereafter, British trawlers could enter the two-hundred-mile area only after receiving permission from Icelandic authorities. The Cod Wars were over.


As a result of the agreement ending the Second Cod War, some fifteen hundred British fishermen and seventy-five hundred British workers in related industries lost their jobs. Great Britain also benefited economically, however, as, ironically, the vigorous defense of a two-hundred-mile exclusive economic zone became the legal foundation for British efforts to tap oil in the North Sea in the 1980’s.

The Cod Wars centered on issues of the control, regulation, and use of natural resources, but these conflicts also illustrated clashing diplomatic, economic, environmental, national, and regional interests. These weighty issues caused formerly close allies to exchange violent blows, sever diplomatic relations, engage in political warfare, and threaten the breakdown of the Western Cold War alliance.

Domestic politics in Iceland and Great Britain became inextricably entangled with Cold War politics, evolving international legal practices (territorial and economic waters), and ecological management (fish conservation and fishing practices). Concern for fish populations and the fishing industry contributed to the European Community’s development of its Common Fisheries Policy Common Fisheries Policy (European Community) (CFP), which aimed to conserve dwindling fish populations and save fishing jobs by establishing fishing quotas for each member state.

Iceland won the political battles and the wars. Other nations soon recognized two-hundred-mile exclusive economic zones. The cod, however, continued to disappear, and the world seemed unable to make long strides toward protecting such natural resources. In the 250 years before 1950, cod constituted 60 percent of all the fish consumed in Europe. By the early years of the twenty-first century, cod had become commercially extinct. Cod Wars (1972-1976) Icelandic Cod Wars (1972-1976) Fishing industry;Cod Wars

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ellis, Richard. The Empty Ocean. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2003. Presents a fact-filled, eloquent, frank description of the global tragedy of the human plundering of the world’s oceans. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ingimundsarson, Valur. “Fighting the Cod Wars in the Cold War: Iceland’s Challenge to the Western Alliance in the 1970’s.” RUSI Journal 148 (June, 2003): 88-94. Provides a rich study of the domestic politics in Iceland that contributed to the Cod Wars. (RUSI Journal is published by the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies.)
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “A Western Cold War: The Crisis in Iceland’s Relations with Britain, the United States, and NATO, 1971-1974.” Diplomacy and Statecraft 14 (December, 2003): 94-136. Detailed assessment of the diplomatic issues involved in the Cod Wars draws on both primary and secondary sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Institute of International Studies. The Anglo-Icelandic Cod War of 1972-1973: A Case Study of a Fishery Dispute. Berkeley: University of California, Institute of International Studies, 1976. Presents a scholarly treatment of the legal and ecological issues surrounding disputes over how and why fishing rights should be protected.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jónsson, Hannes. Friends in Conflict: The Anglo-Icelandic Cod Wars and the Law of the Sea. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1982. Gives a broad account of how two close political allies could come to military blows over fish. Discusses how the cod also symbolized other issues.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kurlansky, Mark. Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World. New York: Walker, 1997. Witty, entertaining, and offbeat volume presents world history from the perspective of cod fishing.

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Categories: History