Modern Iceland is a small but reasonably prosperous nation, with strong trade in tourism and energy-intensive industries. It hasn’t always been so fortunate.
Through much of its history Iceland was one of the poorest countries in Europe. The climate isn’t conducive to basic agriculture, although modern greenhouses have been successful here; there are few easily-accessible mineral resources; and for centuries, the nation’s energy supply was limited to its dwindling forests and peat bogs. Iceland was beautiful, but there was little wealth in the land itself.
Animal husbandry was modestly successful: there are more sheep than humans on Iceland and they’ve kept the people clothed and fed since shortly after the first settlers arrived. But just as the climate makes farming difficult, it also limits the amount of feed for livestock, and periodic volcanic eruptions can smother or poison the land. In the eight months of the Skaftáreldar eruption in 1783-84 for example, ash containing toxic fluorine compounds killed half the livestock in Iceland. About a third of all Icelanders perished in the famine that followed.
One natural resource has been more reliable than all others: the North Atlantic waters are filled with cod, herring, shark, capelin, and other fish. Iceland’s geography includes deep fjords and natural harbors, and for more than a thousand years, Icelanders relied on rowing boats to harvest the schools of fish close to shore. More and larger fish were available further out to sea, but fishermen had to weigh the rewards of a better catch against the risk of being caught in a violent storm. Even with modern sensors and forecast methods, Icelandic weather is notoriously unpredictable: early settlers had little or no warning of an oncoming storm. A rowboat on the North Atlantic is not where you want to be when the skies turn dark.
In 1902, the first Icelandic motorized fishing vessel – a rowboat equipped with a motor – began operations in the Westfjords. In ten years, there were over 400 motorized boats harvesting fish in Icelandic waters. By the 1920s, rowboats were largely gone, replaced by motorized vessels of increasing size and versatility. From 1905-1930, the Icelandic catch more than tripled in size, from 62,500 tons to 216,700 tons.
But the waters near Iceland were increasingly filled with fishing vessels from other nations. British fishermen, in particular, enjoyed rights off the Icelandic coast under a treaty signed with Denmark in 1901. With the invasion of Denmark by Germany in 1940 and Iceland’s subsequent decision to declare independence, however, the issue of who had rights to the fish in Icelandic waters became very much an open question.
Part of the question was what the term “Icelandic waters” actually meant. Under the Anglo-Danish Territorial Waters Agreement, British fishermen could operate anywhere more than three miles from the Icelandic coast. The newly-independent government in Reykjavik, however, claimed exclusive rights to four miles, following international precedents established by Norway in the 1930s. The British retaliated by refusing to allow Icelandic fishing vessels to land in the UK. Because Britain was one of Iceland’s major trading partners, the decision put the Icelandic economy at risk.
The USSR, seeing a chance to drive a wedge between strategically-important Iceland and the other NATO nations (see my earlier post here), offered to provide a replacement market for Icelandic fish. The US, determined not to let the Soviets gain an advantage, also provided market access. The dispute soon found its way to the Organization of European Economic Co-operation, which ruled for Iceland.
In 1958, several nations, including Iceland, argued at the UN for a 12-mile limit. Iceland’s position was driven by the economic importance of its fishing industry and by advances in technology that made it easier to reach and systematically exploit waters further from shore. Foreign fleets operating close to Iceland threatened to deplete Iceland’s stocks of fish.
The UK rejected Iceland’s claim. Given the failure of efforts to punish Iceland legally and economically in the prior dispute, the UK chose a different approach this time: it sent warships to prevent the Icelandic coast guard from interfering with the British fishing vessels. For the next two and a half years, Icelandic coast guard vessels, British trawlers, and Royal Navy gunboats confronted each other in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic. More than 30 British destroyers and frigates violated waters claimed by Iceland, and several collisions occurred between Icelandic and British vessels.
Finally, in late 1960, the commander of a Royal Navy warship threatened to sink an Icelandic coast guard vessel that was trying to seize a British trawler in Icelandic waters. In response, the Icelandic government threatened to withdraw from NATO and expel US forces from the island. Within months, the other NATO nations mediated an end to the dispute: London accepted Iceland’s claim to a 12-mile territorial limit. The First Cod War, as it came to be known, was over.
In the 1970s, Iceland claimed exclusive rights to fish 50 miles from its shore, and later extended the claim to 200 miles, a limit eventually adopted for all nations by the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The British again rejected the Icelandic claims: the Second Cod War ensued in 1972, followed by the Third Cod War in 1975. The conflicts saw the first use of the “net cutter,” Iceland’s only domestically-manufactured weapon. Installed on all Icelandic patrol vessels during the Second Cod War, the net cutter eliminated the need to seize unauthorized vessels: instead, Icelanders cut the lines tying the trawler to its nets. A British ship might sail into Icelandic waters, but it wouldn’t take home any fish.
The second and third conflicts followed the same general course as the first: confrontations between British trawlers and the Icelandic coast guard, intervention by British warships (and, for the first time, British surveillance and combat aircraft), and escalating confrontations including ramming and naval gunfire. They ended with Britain backing down after pressure from NATO member states who regarded the military bases on Iceland to be more important than letting British fisherman have Icelandic cod.
Since the time of the Cod Wars, Iceland has diversified and grown its economy significantly. The fishing industry is still significant player, contributing about 12% of the country’s gross domestic product. The government protects the viability of the industry by monitoring fish populations and imposing quotas on how much of certain kinds of fish can be harvested each year. Fishing is of such key importance to Iceland, in fact, that my first and second group projects of the new semester were devoted to looking at ways to improve the energy efficiency of the industry. More on that later.
Cover image: the fishing village of Stykkishólmur in western Iceland.