Three Wars to Close the Open Sea - Limits - Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World - Mark Kurlansky

Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World - Mark Kurlansky (1999)

Part II. Limits

Chapter 10. Three Wars to Close the Open Sea


—Halldór Laxness, Reykjavik, 1930s

When World War II ended, the fish stocks in the European North Atlantic, after six years with little fishing, were at a level that has never been seen since. There were tremendous catches on the Icelandic shelf, on the North Sea banks, in the Barents Sea, in the Channel, and in the Irish box, as all of the waters surrounding Ireland have come to be known. Like the old days on the North American banks, huge cod were commonplace. But the principal fishing nations came back with ever bigger, faster, and more efficient trawlers.


Postcard, 1910-15, printed in Iceland for French fishermen to send back home.

With the creation of the new independent Icelandic state in 1944, the Anglo-Danish Convention of 1901, with its three-mile limit, was nullified. After five and a half centuries of indifferent colonial administration, Icelanders were determined to build a modern society through management of their one natural resource, cod grounds. By 1955, when Halldór Laxness won the Nobel prize for literature, the harsh life of prewar Iceland that he described in his novels was already becoming a faded memory. A major step in this nation building took place in April 1950. After the required two-year notice was up, Iceland annulled its old treaty and extended its territorial limit to four miles off its shoreline. A modest claim by contemporary standards, this was a bold move in 1950, when the concept that the seas belonged to everyone was a widely held principle of international law.

The three-mile limit had first been established in 1822, with the North Sea Fisheries Convention, signed in the Hague by France, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Britain. Ironically, the British were the great advocates of the three-mile zone and defended it with some of the same tactics that they termed unlawful harassment when later employed by Icelanders against them. When a British-American treaty giving American fishermen access to Canadian waters expired in 1866, the Americans were charged fees to fish in the three-mile zone. But by the 1930s, the principle of any limit was considered highly questionable to most Western nations.

Then, in 1945, because the United States wanted to protect its offshore oil production, a new concept in international law appeared. President Harry Truman issued a proclamation stating that the United States had the right to control mineral resources on its continental shelf. No one had ever owned a continental shelf. The banks did not belong to the United States and Canada. England did not own its shelf. No one owned the North Sea. Since cod and most other commercial fish are mostly found on continental shelves, the implications for fishing were enormous. Furthermore, on the same day, Truman issued another proclamation: “In view of the pressing need for conservation and protection of fishery resources, the Government of the United States regards it as proper to establish conservation zones in those areas of the high seas contiguous to the coasts.” The measure Was in response to a prewar dispute with Japan, whose fishermen had been catching Alaskan salmon from the sea before the fish could return to their spawning rivers.

The proclamation immediately resonated in newly nationalistic postwar Latin America, where many countries started claiming their continental shelf. Europeans—especially the British—fiercely objected, but their arguments were weakened by pressure from their own American possessions. While protesting the principle, Britain claimed a piece of the shelf for the Bahamas. By 1950, there was some international backing for Iceland’s four-mile zone, especially since most international fishing was farther offshore.

But for that very reason, many Icelanders thought the new law was too modest. After 1954, Icelandic cod catches began to fall dramatically. The same was true for ocean perch, or redfish, which was an increasingly important commercial catch. In all, the groundfish catch in Iceland between 1954 and 1957 dropped 16 percent. The argument for extending the limit was further bolstered by the fact that catches of haddock and plaice, which swim closer to shore and therefore were protected by the four-mile limit, had increased during those same years. In 1958, Iceland extended its territorial limit to twelve miles.

While Icelanders were celebrating, the British government sent a formal letter of protest, which stated, “Claims to exercise exclusive jurisdiction in relation to fishing in areas outside the normal limits of territorial waters are wholly unwarranted under international law.” The statement went on to say that “Her Majesty’s Government find it difficult to believe that the Icelandic Government would use force against British fishing vessels in order to secure compliance with a unilateral Decree which parties of the Government Coalition propose to issue without regard for international law.” Once again, the British had underestimated the zeal of a people first embracing nationhood.

And so began what the British press labeled “the Cod Wars.” There were three, though there was never a declaration of war nor a single death. The lack of casualties can only be attributed to a great deal of luck on both sides.

France, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain all backed the British position, which is about as close as western Europe has ever come to a united front. To them, the Icelanders were “harassing” lawful shipping beyond their territorial limits. By the withdrawal deadline, August 30, 1958, all foreign vessels, except British trawlers, had left the twelve-mile limit. They were now accompanied by British warships. The Icelandic Coast Guard spotted thirty-seven ships of the Royal Navy and 7,000 men, though Admiralty records show that the force was even larger.

The destroyers and frigates, manned by World War II combat veterans, were capable of speeds of up to thirty knots. The Icelandic Coast Guard had seven ships, of which the largest and most advanced could do seventeen knots. The ships had one gun each, and the sailors were either policemen or civilians—men with no combat experience. But they were all experienced seamen with an intimate knowledge of Icelandic waters. During the two and a half years of the first Cod War, the Coast Guard managed to arrest only one British trawler out of Grimsby that had ventured within the old four-mile limit where the Royal Navy was not patrolling. But with all of this tense maneuvering, the trawlers were getting very little fishing done. The Navy had the trawlers fishing within defendable thirty-mile-long rectangular boxes—a good military move, but abysmal for catches.

Based on its ambassador’s reports, the British government believed that Icelanders were divided on the issue of extending their exclusive fishing zone. Opposition parties had voiced disagreement, but mostly on the timing of implementation. When the British realized their mistake, they began negotiating—in Reykjavik, London, and Paris. After five months, in February 1961, Britain finally recognized the twelve-mile limit, and Iceland declared its intention to look into further expansion. The Icelandic government almost fell over its agreement to give the British a three-year adjustment period.

Ten years later, the two countries repeated the same exercise. In March 1971, Iceland declared that effective September 1, 1972, it was extending its limit to fifty miles. Britain and West Germany, now partners in the European Economic Community, vehemently protested and asked the International Court of Justice to intercede in what they claimed was a violation of international law. Iceland said it did not recognize the court’s jurisdiction because the action was on Iceland’s continental shelf and therefore was not an international issue. Before the International Court could reach a decision, the second Cod War was fought and settled.

This second war was shorter and more dangerous. On the one side, the Icelandic Coast Guard was better prepared, with faster ships. On the other side, the Royal Navy was backed up by the West Germans, who were not allowed to have a military but provided “supply and protection” vessels. In the first Cod War, the only way the Coast Guard could have stopped a British trawler was to fire on it. Not only were they badly outgunned, but, as the British had suggested at the time, Icelanders did not really want to shoot and kill British seamen. But by 1958, Icelandic engineers had secretly developed a Cod War weapon, and the following year, they had armed all seven Coast Guard vessels with it. When negotiations in the first Cod War began, the Icelanders decided not to use this weapon and managed to keep it under wraps for more than ten years until the second Cod War.

In the second Cod War, a Coast Guard vessel would approach a foreign trawler to inform the captain that he was in violation of Icelandic law and should move outside the fifty-mile limit. If the captain did not agree, the Coast Guard ship would come about and, cruising at a right angle to the trawler, cross its path astern with the Coast Guard’s secret weapon pulled behind—a “trawl wire cutter.” In reality, the new weapon applied the old technology of minesweeping to fishing. One of the device’s four prongs would ensnare a trawl cable and cut it, letting loose a net worth $5,000 and whatever catch might be in it. A trawler without a trawl had nothing to do but go home. During the one-year conflict, eighty-four trawlers—sixty—nine British and fifteen German—lost their nets. To protect their nets, trawlers started fishing in pairs, one working and the other guarding the stern. But since one of every two trawlers was no longer fishing, the fishing fleet was reduced to half its normal capacity. Also, several trawlers collided from following too close in rough seas. Gale winds of sixty miles per hour are common in these waters.

After the effectiveness of the trawl wire cutter was demonstrated, the second Cod War degenerated into dodgem cars on the high seas. Trawlers attempted to prevent Coast Guard vessels from cutting their trawl by ramming them. But the Coast Guard vessels could also ram, and their reenforced hulls, built for icebreaking, made them particularly effective at this. The British were reluctant to send in the Royal Navy again because Iceland and Britain were now allies in the integrated forces of NATO. Instead, they sent four large fast tugboats, which, according to Icelanders, were to ram Coast Guard vessels. According to the British, the tugs were under orders not to ram but to position themselves so that Coast Guard vessels could not cut trawler cables. Whatever their intention, the tugs did ram a few Icelandic vessels. On March 18, 1973, an Icelandic gunboat fired live shells across the bow of a British tug, and on May 26, an Icelandic shell blew a hole in the hull of a British trawler. The British trawlers withdrew to fifty miles and refused to come back until the Royal Navy protected them. Seven British war frigates moved in, and once again the trawlers were ordered to fish in boxes. If a Coast Guard ship entered a box, frigates, tugs, and trawlers would all attempt to ram it until it sank. This led to regular collisions on the high seas but, miraculously, no loss of lives or vessels. After ships collided, both damaged vessels would limp back to their home ports.

The Icelandic government was shockingly tough. It refused to allow injured or sick British seamen into Iceland unless they arrived on their vessel, which would have meant surrendering the trawler. It blocked British NATO planes from Icelandic air traffic control and even threatened to cut diplomatic relations. Unlike Britain, Iceland depended on fishing for its entire economy; fishing was the miracle that had lifted its people from the Middle Ages to affluence. Despite a history of warm feelings between the two nations and a close alliance, Iceland was not going to yield on its only resource. NATO, concerned about this conflict within its ranks in the middle of the Cold War, began pressuring Britain to back down. In the end, Britain recognized the fifty-mile zone in exchange for limited arrangements for smaller British trawlers.

One of the great changes in the postwar world was that small nations were making themselves heard as never before through international forums, most notably the United Nations. The idea of expanding sovereignty into the ocean was catching on. In a 1973 meeting of the UN Seabed Committee, thirty-four nations, mostly Latin American, African, and Asian, endorsed the concept of a 200-mile zone. The only northern European nations to endorse this were Iceland and Norway, both of which were fast becoming leaders in the cod trade.

In 1974, Icelandic cod stocks appeared to be in trouble again, in spite of the fifty-mile limit. The percentage of large cod in the catch had declined dramatically. Icelandic biologists claimed that a decade earlier eighteen-year-old cods were commonplace, whereas by 1974 it was rare to find a cod older than twelve. This meant the reproductive capacity of the stock was greatly reduced. Even British scientists agreed with these findings.

One more time, on October 15, 1975, citing diminishing cod stocks and the need for conservation measures, Iceland extended its limit, this time to 200 miles. And once again, all foreign trawlers sailed outside the new zone except the British and, this time, the West Germans. They were going to do it all over again.

It was to be the shortest and meanest of the three wars. In one incident in December 1975, a British tug reported that an Icelandic Coast Guard vessel fired two shots, neither of which hit. In five months, there were thirty-five ramming incidents as the Icelandic Coast Guard cut forty-six British and nine German trawls. Both sides were becoming practiced at the arcane skill of friendly naval battles. British foreign secretary James Callaghan told the home press, “Both sides in the conflict are showing valor, but there is no need for anyone to show their virility.”

Negotiations were also intense. “The Icelanders are, by any standards, very difficult to deal with,” reported the London Financial Times. Iceland was not going to compromise. At one point, the nation actually severed diplomatic relations with Britain. But NATO continued to pursue talks. Jón Jónsson, longtime director of Iceland’s Marine Research Institute and one of the negotiators for the third Cod War, said, “Between scientists it was a very friendly cod war. The English are our best enemies.” He recalled that a British negotiator once jokingly suggested that no trawls be cut the following Thursday because there was a program he wanted to watch on television. Jónsson fondly recalled the good travel tips he received for his upcoming vacation, when he and his wife toured Cornwall.

Although the British did not think the future of their entire economy was at risk, they had much at stake. Leaders of the trawler industry and chip shop guilds, known as fish fryer associations, warned that the entire British fishing industry was about to collapse. The great cod ports of Hull, Grimsby, and Fleetwood were in precipitous decline. The merchants who bought from the trawlers and sold wholesale were dependent on Icelandic cod. Between the end of the second Cod War and 1976, the number of wholesale merchants in Hull had dropped from 250 to 87. Britain’s allies repeatedly suggested that the problem could be solved by British consumers abandoning their beloved cod for other species. The West Germans negotiated a truce with Iceland in which they were given redfish quotas as compensation for being barred from catching Icelandic cod. The West German government told the British that the entire problem could be solved if British households would learn to eat redfish and pollock. The European Economic Community pointed out that blue whiting was abundant off of Scotland. “If the British could be brought to eat it, the whole cod war would become unnecessary,” said the Financial Times in May 1976. But the British wanted to eat cod, not whiting or pollock, and they detested redfish.

Jónsson described the London negotiating sessions as “heated discussion but on a gentlemanly level. But the British fought a losing battle, and I was surprised at how shortsighted they were. All the world was going to 200 miles. I said to the British minister, ‘I am quite sure you are going to 200 miles in a few years, and then we will be able to advise you on how to do it.’ And they did go to 200 miles, though they never asked our advice.”

Indeed, the entire European Economic Community was about to declare a 200-mile zone. The British government insisted on a 100-mile exclusive British zone in its own waters. In February 1976, the EEC embarrassed Britain, in the middle of its negotiations with Iceland, by openly rejecting the British demand and simply establishing a European 200-mile zone.

Tómas Thorvaldsson was fifty-seven years old when the 200-mile zone changed his life. He had already been through many changes and become the prosperous executive of a trawler company with its own processing plant. Now he was also part of government: a board member and, after twenty-two years, president of a state bureaucracy that controlled all fish exports. He remembered the old days and liked to visit the black crescent of shore, the lava beach where they used to drag the boats to the water. Solemnly he would say, “On this spot men have gone to sea for more than 1,000 years.”

But the old Iceland seemed unimaginable to his children. Even the food was different. Young people did not eat stockfish; they went to a bakery and bought bread. Their diet, with the exception of lamb and fish, was imported and expensive. One day each winter, when the arctic night is almost twenty-four hours, and thoughts turn suicidal, a feast is held at costs unimaginable in the old days, in which the old Icelanders eat hákarl, sheep’s head, ram’s testicles, and other foods from their past.

Physical traces of past centuries vanished almost completely. If a building survived from the 1930s, it was considered historic. One-third of the town of Heimaey, a fishing port on a small island off the southern coast, was buried in a 1973 volcanic eruption. A sign in the new lava fields proclaims that buried some feet below is Iceland’s oldest Kiwanis Club, built in 1924.

Most towns had a population of 2,000 or less. The few people drove cars on needlessly wide, well-paved streets. There were no crowds, no signs of poverty, nothing old and absolutely no dirt. Just a treeless immaculate plain of new houses, metal or concrete, freshly painted in colors that are true but not hot and mirror nothing in nature. Most towns looked like a sales lot for new, oversized mobile homes. “These are the new houses built for the young people after we were through digging a harbor by hand,” said Tómas.

The harbor in Grindavik was dug out a little more each year. The men of the town are still dredging. It is now home port to fifty fishing vessels, ranging from small, two-man boats with a converted stern rigged for dragging, to large, modern bottom draggers.

After Iceland’s 200-mile zone gained acceptance in 1976, most nations declared their own 200-mile zones. Some 90 percent of the world’s known fishing grounds fell within 200 miles of the coast of at least one nation. Fishermen now had to work not so much with the laws of nature as the laws of man. Their primary task was no longer to catch as many fish as possible but to catch as many as were allowed. The fisherman had long been a skilled navigator, seaman, biologist, meteorologist, mechanic, weaver, and mender. Now he also had to learn, like a good civil servant, how to work the regulations, sidestep their pitfalls, and sail through their loopholes. He became skilled at this as well. Fishermen rarely consider regulation their responsibility. As they see it, that is the duty of government—to make the rules—and it is their duty to navigate through them. If the stocks are not conserved, government mismanagement is to blame.

If the zone is used to exclude foreigners, as most are, the nation only has to regulate its own fishermen. That was seen by Icelanders as the key to effective management. Jóhann Sigurjónsson, deputy director of the Marine Research Institute, said, “It’s enough to have your own people to watch. You don’t want an Olympic fishery like the North Sea. Everybody tries to take as much as they can as fast as they can.” The European Community tried to solve this through its regulatory bureaucracy, the Common Fishing Policy, but that only created a new, complex set of nation-by-nation regulations for fishermen to work on.

The Icelandic government realized that it would have to curb the capacity of its own fleet. It required larger mesh on trawls. But the fishermen compensated by buying more trawlers. Then the government restricted the size of the fleet and the number of days at sea; the fishermen responded by buying larger, more efficient gear. The cod stocks continued to decline. In 1984, the government introduced quotas on species per vessel per season. This was a controversial and often wasteful system. A groundfish hauled up from fifty fathoms is killed by the change in pressure. But if it is a cod and the cod quota has been used up, it is thrown overboard. Or if the price of cod is low that week and cod happen to come in the haddock or plaice net, the fishermen will throw them overboard because they do not want to use up their cod quota when they are not getting a good price.

In 1995, a system was initiated to restrict the total cod catch to a maximum of 25 percent of the estimated stock. That also had loopholes. But with each measure, there was less and less resistance. When Icelanders see cod stocks diminishing, they think about returning to the Middle Ages—earthen huts, metal shacks, the buried shark and burned sheep heads. National politicians, fishermen, trawler owners, and seafood companies became increasingly cooperative with the scientists at the Marine Research Institute. Their greatest opponents were local politicians trying to bring something home for the district.

Before the 200-mile zone, Tómas Thorvaldsson had never thought about overfishing, only about how to catch more fish. But now he had to limit his fishing capacity. “Thinking about fishing less was very difficult for the mind,” he said. He showed an empty dormitory that until 1990 had housed up to fifty-two workers from other parts of Iceland. They would come to process 2,000 tons of saltfish a year. In recent years, Tómas had processed only 300 to 400 tons a year. Higher prices, fewer fish, and fewer fishermen was the new formula of the Iceland fishery. Although the sector drove the economy, the government had already reduced the number of fishermen to only 5 percent of the workforce.

Looking around the walls of his office, where he had hung photographs of every vessel he had ever owned, Tómas pointed to that low-to-the-water little steamship, his first decked boat, and said, “Maybe we should go back to this.”


In late January and February, during the spawning season, it is a tradition in Iceland to eat cod roe stuffed with the fish’s liver. Like most traditional Icelandic food, this dish is not popular with the young and affluent generation.


Cut the side of the roe and turn it inside out. Put the liver inside. Cook in boiling water for a few minutes. Sometimes, instead of liver, I make a pudding with mashed cod, minced onions, flour, and egg because the babies don’t like liver.

—Úlfar Eysteinsson,
Thrir Frakkar restaurant, Reykjavik, 1996

Also see pages 247-49.