Iceland, Keflavik and the Cod Wars

It was a drive of about forty minutes from Reyjkavik to Keflavik but today the sun was shining which was in contrast to the journey that we had made in the opposite direction just a few days previously and this time we could appreciate the lava black basalt littered landscape dripping in lime green moss and decorated with yellow lichen.

To date only twelve men have walked on the moon (well, maybe, maybe not, depending on your point of view) but for those of us that haven’t I imagine that it looked rather like this (without the moss and the lichen obviously).

In Icelandic terms Keflavik is a big town, the second largest outside of the Reyjkavik conurbation but with a population of only about fourteen thousand this only really makes it a large village in UK terms so finding our accommodation at the Hotel Berg was very straight-forward.

We liked it immediately, it was friendly and welcoming, our rooms were available ahead of check-in time and they were comfortable and warm with good views over the adjacent harbour.

Our plan for the rest of the day was to visit the Blue Lagoon thermal pools but it was still quite early so we thought that before that it seemed only good manners to take a look at Keflavik and walk for a while along the seafront.

First we came across an old fishing boat that had been dragged up out of the sea and was now on permanent display safely marooned on dry land.  It was called the Baldur and visitors could go on board and walk safely on decks where men had previously risked their lives out at sea and it reminded me of the National Fishing Heritage Museum in Grimsby (my home town) and the Ross Tiger fishing trawler moored up alongside.

This made me think of the Icelandic Cod Wars!

In 1958 Britain went to war – this time with Iceland.  The First Cod War lasted from 1st September until 12th November 1958 and began in response to a new Icelandic law that tripled the Icelandic fishery zone from four nautical miles to twelve to protect its own fishing industry.

The British Government declared that their trawlers would fish under protection from Royal Navy warships in three areas, out of the Westfjords, north of Horn and to the southeast of Iceland.  All in all, twenty British trawlers, four warships and a supply vessel operated inside the newly declared zones.  This was a bad tempered little spat that involved trawler net cutting, mid ocean ramming incidents and collisions.  It was also a bit of an uneven contest because in all fifty-three British warships took part in the operations against seven Icelandic patrol vessels and a single Catalina flying boat.

Eventually Britain and Iceland came to a settlement, which stipulated that any future disagreement between the two countries in the matter of fishery zones would be sent to the International Court of Justice in The Hague and the Icelandic Minister Bjarni Benediktsson hailed the agreement as “Iceland’s biggest political victory.

Icelandic Fisherman and catch

But it wasn’t the end of Cod Wars because there was a second in 1972 and a third in 1975 when on both occasions Iceland further extended their territorial fishing waters without consultation and continuing to protect these is what keeps Iceland from joining the European Union even today.

I had no idea that when I visited Iceland that I was now there as a resident of the English fishing town of Grimsby which was once recognised as the largest and busiest fishing port in the world. The wealth and population growth of the town was based on the North Sea herring fishery but this collapsed in the middle of the twentieth century and so diversified to distant water trawler fishing targeting cod in the seas around Iceland.  The concessions that Britain made to Iceland as a result of the Cod Wars which put these fishing grounds off limit destroyed the fishing industry in the town.  It is said that many men who survived the sea came home without jobs and drowned in beer.

Today Grimsby is dominated by the fish processing sector rather than the catching industry. Processors are mainly supplied by over-landed fish from other UK ports and by a harsh twist of fate containerised white fish from Iceland.

There is a National Fishing Heritage Centre in Grimsby which is a museum including a visit on board a real Grimsby Trawler – The Ross Tiger.  It’s a museum well worth visiting and the last time that I went I learnt from the guided tour that ironically Grimbarians don’t particularly care for cod anyway and have a preference for haddock which they consider to be a superior fish!

It wasn’t only Grimsby that was adversely affected by the outcome of the Cod Wars and across the Humber Estuary the fishing industry in the city of Kingston-upon-Hull  was similarly devastated by the capitulation of the UK Government and also went into dramatic and irreversible decline.

In view of this in a previous post I expressed surprise that Reykjavik and Hull are official  ‘Twin Towns‘ but I suppose the arrangement may be an attempt at reconciliation and mutual understanding because this was one of the original principles of twinning which became a popular thing to do after the Second World War as people sought to repair shattered relationships with their neighbours

I have often wondered however what the process was for getting a twin town. Perhaps it was like the draw for the third round of the FA cup when all the names go into a hat to be drawn out with each other, or perhaps it was like the UCAS University clearing house system where towns made their preferred selections and waited for performance results to see if they were successful, perhaps it was a sort of international dating service and introductory agency or maybe it was just a nice place where the Mayor and the Town Clerk rather fancied an annual all-expenses paid trip!

After visiting the Baldur we walked along the coast where the sea was calm today but the defences in place suggested that this might be a rough place in high seas.  Keflavik translates as ‘Driftwood Bay‘  so I searched for a while and picked up some nice pieces for my driftwood boat sculptures and then we walked back to the hotel, checked out the restaurant options for later and then picked up the car and drove the twenty-minute drive to the Blue Lagoon.

Ross Tiger Grimsby Fishing Heritage Museum

16 responses to “Iceland, Keflavik and the Cod Wars

  1. Very informative post Andrew. I will admit I was expecting from the title some throwing of fish at a restaurant. I grow more and more intrigued with Iceland with each post.


  2. Nice piece, Andrew.
    The shocking thing about the “cod wars” is this:
    Every country in Europe observed a 12 mile fishing limit. Pusillanimous British governments (these same people you accuse of imperialism in Gibraltar – a joke Andrew, do not rise to the bait!) allowed them to extend first to 50 and then some years later to an amazing TWO HUNDRED mile limit.
    And the reasoning behind this (I nearly said “land” …) SEA grab?
    The Icelanders said our nets were catching everything, including baby fish. They claimed their nets were designed to let small fish escape. Thus it was vital if fish stocks were not to be depleted, that all foreign vessels clear off.
    And guess what?
    In search of the extra dollar, the Icelanders overfished themselves! So much so that the last I heard, there was a moratorium on cod fishing there!
    As for Grimsby – which is NOT your “hometown” nor mine, BTW*, you are right in saying it is a HADDOCK town and not a cod one. Our rival town (12 miles away as the crow flies) HULL is the cod town/city.
    But with cod hard to get, they sell haddock everywhere now. But you will always see two words in front of the word haddock: no not “Best Grimsby”! That would be too much for Hull folk to bear!
    The magic words you see are …
    (wait for it!)


    * Our home town is always surely where our family lived in our schooldays.

    Dai Woosnam
    Grimsby, UK


    • Yes Dai, you are probably right, to be more correct I should have perhaps said adopted or maybe temporary ‘home town’. Although Leicester is my birth city and Rugby is where I grew up, Grimsby is where my home is right now!


  3. There’s a similar fishing heritage museum in Hull’s ‘museum quarter’ with some good exhibits – worth a look next time you’re early for the P&O ferry.

    I quite like eating Hake – a bit like cod but cheaper and more readily available.


  4. I didn’t know much about the cod wars, certainly not that there was one before I was born 😉 But as I came from a haddock area too it was of little interest except that Britain was being pushed around by Iceland. Didn’t I read somewhere recently there had been another RN + trawler incident somewhere? No not here in Gib! I can’t be bothered to get into the dis/similarities of territorial waters, overfishing, and fishing rights. I shall end by saying that in our area, (my home town no less) we used to ask for fish and chips. Anyone who wanted cod had to specifically ask for it. I don’t think I ever heard anyone do so. It was regarded as being watery and tasteless compared with nice tasty firm (North Sea) haddock.


    • I think that in the Midlands we must have been getting all that cod that nobody wanted in Yorkshire and Humberside. Fish and Chips meant cod unless you specified haddock.
      You would have some difficulty getting a 200 mile exclusion zone around Gibraltar!


  5. No no no, my dear Andrew! You have that wrong!
    EVERYONE wanted Cod in Yorkshire.
    But the other bank of the Humber in NE Lincolnshire, THAT is where they looked down on cod.

    Grimsby is a HADDOCK town. The local football team – Grimsby Town – even has its mascot called Harry The Haddock. Fans wave plastic haddocks during games. I had one myself cheering them on at a Wembley final a few years back!

    When I first moved to Grimsby, I went into a Fish & Chip shop and asked for Cod and Chips. The proprietor looked at me sternly and said “do not swear in here. It is an ill fish!”
    “An ILL fish?” says me. “It may be a DEAD fish, I will concede, but not an ILL one, surely?”

    He looked at me like I was daft. “Taffy, you need your ears syringing. I said it is a HULL fish, not ill. Though come to think of it now you have said ILL, it is a vastly inferior fish to the noble haddock because it is an impure one. Look at any cod fish and you will see that its white flesh has this black stain right through it that they cut out before frying.”

    Never quite worked out if he was pulling my leg.

    But one thing for sure is when I came to live in Grimsby/Cleethorpes, I came to the towns with the highest per capita percentage of F&C shops in the UK.

    Why this should be of course is FASCINATING …given that the alternative currency of the town used to be fish. People were often PAID in fish. So how come so many F&C shops? But do not let me steal your thunder. I will let you go on to tell your readers the reason, when you start writing about England. You have so many wonders on your doorstep that I keep trying to interest you in… but you insist on travelling out of your native land. Don’t know what old Sigmund would make of you!

    Whether you are a cod or haddock person (and here is a shameful admission: I am not sure that I can ever REALLY tell the difference with any accuracy, as I reckon they taste almost identical and I love them both equally. They are both at the top of the fish caught in the North Atlantic: way above hake and pollack!)…one thing for sure both Hull and GY are F&C crazy. I could see my toes when I moved here in Dec 1999, but now have not seen them for years, becoming morbidly obese in the process. I have visited every F&C establishment in the area …some over 100 times in 14 years.

    Living here spoils you for F&C in other inland towns. Not just quality wise, but also prices, My local sells a decent sized haddock fillet and chips for just £1.80. That is exceptional value. But the two other F&C shops I regularly frequent sell a larger fillet and chips for just £2.80.

    Either way, F&C shops abound. I said to my wife Larissa that the VERY BREEZE off the River Humber has fish and chips on its breath.

    Kindest, as ever,

    Dai Woosnam


    • Thanks for the fishing lesson Dai.
      Since you admitted to it first I will also own up to liking both fish equally, the one fish that I can never understand eating is Plaice, I have never really liked it.
      My favourite haddock and chips is currently from the Nusnsthorpe chip shop – a little expensive at £4.20 but always an excellent piece of fish and lovely batter!


  6. I’d go to war over Cod fishing rights anytime! Love the Cod – fresh, dried, fried, baked, cooked – a must for Good Friday and Christmas Eve in my household:D Enjoyed this post, Andrew.


  7. We had similar events off our east coat (Nova Scotia, I think–it was many years ago and I stopped paying attention). The fish stock were depleted by ‘foreigners’. It became something like a grab and run game at some point.
    The result was the fisherman lost their livelihood for years and years while waiting for the fish to come back. 😦 Fishing was all they had and afterwards it was a long effort to breathe new enterprise into the area so people could make a living.


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