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What Were the Cod Wars?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Cod Wars were a series of skirmishes between Great Britain and Iceland during the 1950s and 1970s. Although the situation was thankfully resolved without bloodshed, it did illustrate some major political issues dealing with fishing rights, territorial waters, and the right of a country to protect its valuable natural resources. As human pressure on the environment increases, incidents like the Cod Wars may happen again.

The story begins with the cod, a fish which once existed in great bounty across the North Atlantic. Cod have been extensively fished by a variety of nations for centuries, and fortunes were built upon cod fisheries in places like Iceland. Iceland has historically relied very heavily on cod as an industry. Scientists in Iceland began to be concerned when long ranging ships from other countries fished for cod offshore. Although this practice was technically legal, it threatened cod stocks in Iceland.

In 1958, Iceland took action, extending an exclusive economic zone beyond its internationally recognized territorial waters. The country argued that this was necessary to protect the threatened cod fishery, and it pledged to enforce the zone with the assistance of a quota system and the Icelandic Coast Guard. Britain resented the move, and it sent fishing ships into the exclusive economic zone, along with escorts, setting off the first Cod War in fall 1958. After a few months of deliberate collisions, net cutting, and warning shots, the first Cod War ended with a treaty and an agreement to take future disputes to the International Court of Justice.

The Cod Wars, known in Icelandic as Þorskastríðin or Landhelgisstríðin, were not over. In 1972, Iceland extended the exclusive economic zone again, in an attempt to revive the failing fishery by forcing international producers out. The two countries almost literally went to war in 1973, but the crisis was averted after a series of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) talks. In 1975, however, another Cod War broke out, when the British refused to recognize the economic exclusion zone and Iceland once again sent out Coast Guard ships to enforce it. This time, Iceland threatened to withdraw from NATO and close a NATO base unless their demands were meant, and a final treaty was reached.

Although the Cod Wars might seem petty, they were a very important event in history. Iceland began to come into its own as a NATO power during the Cod Wars, when the nation realized that it had leverage. Issues with the cod fishery were more widely recognized, leading to more global awareness about sustainable fishing and a moratorium on cod fishing in some countries. It was fortunate that no one died during the Cod Wars; future conflicts over dwindling resources may not be so bloodless.

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon204469 — On Aug 09, 2011

One in the crew of Ægir died in 1973 in conflict with a British fishing vessel.

By anon124651 — On Nov 06, 2010

It is stated in Britain's small wars that Great britain by backing down cost its country 1500 fishing jobs, and 7500 support jobs. The fishing towns of Hull, Grimsby and Hull died. --Steve

By NightChef — On Sep 21, 2010

And here I thought that most wars were started by religion. This just goes to show you how man can fight each other until death for natural resources. It would seem though that as trade and agricultural technologies have progressed, the actual outbreak of war because of a food need is something of the past. Only on small scale and in rural areas of the world is there still food war.

By anon6559 — On Jan 02, 2008

I was in H.M.S. Tenby in feb 1959 we were in the first cod war. There was a storm and we went to the aide of a cargo ship in trouble. the Icelandic Gunboat Thor came with us. Two other R.N. ships got there first. Someone aboard H.M.S. Tenby wrote a poem, Brotherhood of the sea. If anyone knows where i can get a copy i would appreciate it.

Larry 'G'

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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