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The Cod Wars: How Iceland Defied the Odds to Protect Its Marine Resources

The 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone is an internationally recognized and universally observed principle. Its establishment is intertwined with a creature from the sea.

This creature is referred to as cod, and the Icelandic waters stand as the prominent cod-producing region in Europe. Cod constitutes a daily staple on the tables of Westerners. Numerous European nations have ventured into the waters near Iceland to engage in cod fishing expeditions, particularly the United Kingdom, which lies opposite the Icelandic waters. The frenzied fishing activities conducted by various countries have instilled concerns in Iceland, fearing that its doorstep’s cod resources will be ravaged by external nations.

In order to fully safeguard the cod resources and protect the economic interests of Icelandic fishermen, the Icelandic government recognized that expanding the “4 nautical miles of territorial waters” is imperative to uphold the country’s economic rights and interests. In 1958, shortly after Iceland’s declaration of independence, the nation proclaimed an extension of its territorial waters to span 12 nautical miles from the coastline.

The Icelandic government set August 30, 1958, as the deadline for foreign vessels to vacate the waters. During that time, all fishing vessels from various countries, except for the British trawler, complied with the demand and retreated beyond Iceland’s 12-nautical-mile limit. To safeguard their fishing boats, the British Royal Navy dispatched 37 ships along with approximately 7,000 soldiers to escort their fleet. The British Royal Navy was renowned for its superior equipment and expertise, while Iceland possessed only a few gunboats converted from aged fishing vessels. The coast guard primarily comprised police and civilians, creating an exceedingly disproportionate balance of power. However, the Icelanders remained steadfast in the face of immense pressure and fought resolutely until the end.

Thus, the conflict commonly known as the “Cod War” commenced.

Iceland was well aware of the considerable disparity in strength between the two nations. To avoid excessively provoking the British, despite the Icelandic warships firing upon the British vessels, they deliberately refrained from causing harm to the crews. Initially, the British believed that by intimidating the Icelanders, they could compel the Icelandic government to rescind its orders. Unexpectedly, the Icelanders displayed unwavering resolve, challenging the British and complicating matters. After all, Iceland was a member of NATO. In an era dominated by intense Cold War tensions, engaging in conflict with one’s allies would only benefit the Soviet Union. Consequently, the British had no choice but to engage in negotiations with Iceland. As a result, in 1961, the United Kingdom officially acknowledged Iceland’s 12-nautical-mile territorial sea boundary. Iceland’s triumph granted Britain a three-year period for adjustment.

Following their victory, Iceland believed that further expansion of their maritime domain was attainable. Therefore, ten years later, in 1971, Iceland announced its intention to extend the fishing prohibition zone to encompass 50 nautical miles! This decision enraged the British, leading them to refuse cooperation with the Icelandic government. The second “Cod War” erupted. On this occasion, the Icelandic Coast Guard ships boldly approached foreign vessels and deployed their secret weapon, the trawl cutter, from the stern of their ships. This weapon boasted four prongs, one of which ensnared and severed the trawl cables. Fishing boats from multiple countries, including the UK, suffered damage to their nets and were forced to retreat from Icelandic waters.

Supported by West Germany, Britain dispatched seven warships to deter Iceland once again. A collision occurred during this confrontation, although no casualties were reported. In response, Iceland launched an airburst bomb at the British ships as a warning. Iceland even proposed severing diplomatic ties with the United Kingdom. NATO perceived the severity of this internal strife and hastily intervened to mediate. Such inter-alliance conflict was truly unbecoming of Western nations. Britain, once the maritime hegemon, had no alternative but to endure the situation, leading to the conclusion of the second “Cod War.”

In 1974, due to a drastic decline in Iceland’s cod population, the nation announced the expansion of the no-fishing zone to encompass 200 nautical miles. The British could no longer tolerate this development. In December 1975, the two countries embarked on the “Cod War” once again. This time, no external persuasion could deter them. The British adamantly refused to back down and dispatched warships once more to intimidate Iceland. However, the outcome mirrored that of the previous conflict. The two sides engaged in symbolic skirmishes, with no loss of life or injury. In 1976, the European Community’s patience waned due to the protracted “Cod War,” publicly declaring that European countries’ exclusive maritime zones would be limited to 200 nautical miles. Faced with this rebellion, the United Kingdom was compelled to finally acknowledge Iceland’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone and assert its own 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone.

Thus, through its unwavering efforts, Iceland not only safeguarded its rights and interests while altering its own destiny butalso reshaped the rules of the global maritime arena, inscribing a significant chapter in the annals of worldwide oceanic development.