For decades, two island nations came to blows over fish.
In Icelandic, they were known as Þorskastríðin, “the cod strife,” or Landhelgisstríðin, “the wars for the territorial waters.” In English, they were simply “the Cod Wars.” Between the late 1940s and 1976, the two island nations of Iceland and the United Kingdom all but declared war—despite the fact that there were almost no casualties, and the former had no army.In the frigid waters between these two nations, four confrontations took place between Great Britain, a world superpower, and Iceland, a microstate of just a few hundred thousand people. Each time, Iceland won. And it all happened because of cod—and the right to fish it. These were the Cod Wars.
Also at Gastro Obscura:Perhaps unsurprisingly, a nation surrounded by hundreds of square miles of ocean on all sides relies heavily on fish. It has long been Iceland’s main food supply and primary export product. But of all fish, cod is the most important: a raison d’etre, a source of national pride to rival their soccer team, and a favorite thing to eat. Sometimes, it’s dried into a kind of fish jerky and smeared with butter. Sometimes, it’s salted (one of Iceland’s biggest exports). Sometimes, it’s simply the fish’s gellur (the fleshy triangular muscle behind and under the tongue) boiled or served in a gratin. It is Iceland’s very own watery white gold, and the country carefully guards its bounty.
But in the lead-up to the Second World War, Icelandic fishermen grew concerned about a preponderance of British ships in their waters, which affected how much cod they could catch themselves. Anxiety mounted until, in 1952, they announced new rules, limiting the Icelandic waters where British fishermen could trawl, and expanding Icelandic fishery zones from three to four nautical miles from the shore.
The United Kingdom, incensed by this swat from its tiny neighbor, retaliated by imposing a landing ban on Icelandic fish in British ports. It was a costly sanction—the U.K. was Iceland’s largest export market for fish. It backfired, however, when the USSR found homes for Iceland’s unsold fish. In the midst of its own Cold War, the U.S. followed suit, perhaps fearing greater Soviet influence, and encouraged its European allies to do the same. The sanctions thus minimized, Iceland could maintain their new limits. Eventually, in 1956, Great Britain capitulated the first Cod War, in the wake of a decision from the Organisation of European Economic Co-operation that sided with Iceland.
That might have been that, but in September 1958, Iceland expanded its national waters still further, from four nautical miles to 12, deep into waters that had previously belonged to no one. NATO, the Western military alliance, was up in arms, and Britain refused to cooperate. With the backing of virtually every western European country, Britain insisted they would continue to fish where they had before, under the protection of Royal Navy warships.
During the first Cod War, sometimes described as the prequel to the later three, Iceland had done little to enforce its ban: Its Coast Guard arrested only one British trawler. This time, however, skirmishes were frequent and shots were fired.In one such altercation, in November 1958, the Icelandic gunboat V/s Þór fired warning shots at the British trawler Hackness. Eventually, the British navy ship HMS Russell intervened, and pointed out that the British ship was well outside the four-mile limit (that the British recognized as legitimate). Þór’s captain would not retreat, and ordered his men to man their guns and approach the wayward trawler. Russell, a comparable titan, made it clear that they would sink the boat if it shot the trawler. A brief stalemate followed, until the arrival of more British ships forced the Þór to back down....MORE
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