In this article, Will Green considers the fishing disputes with Iceland between the 1950-70s and how the Royal Navy’s involvement provides an important reminder of the diverse challenges that may arise from unexpected sources.
The fight for fish
The Royal Navy performs a wide range of peacetime tasks – anti-narcotics monitoring, search and rescue, mine clearance, and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) patrols. This latter role reflects a long tradition of the defence of British interests at home and abroad, although the legal concept of the EEZ was only solidified in 1982, through the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which allowed countries to claim sole economic access to waters within 200 miles of their coastline. Before this framework, a complicated maze of traditions and conventions governed the approach to national control of the oceans.
The Cod Wars emerged from this poorly defined jurisdiction. British fishermen had long been present in the rich waters off Iceland, trawling for haddock, halibut, and cod. This was deeply resented in Reykjavik, and, following the Second World War, the Icelandic government sought to restrict British fishing activity, extending its territorial limits from three to four nautical miles from the coast in 1956. In 1958, this limit was further extended to twelve nautical miles. This second extension was deemed to be a serious affront to British commercial interests, and the Royal Navy was deployed to guard British trawlers within the twelve-mile zone. Yet the cost of this deployment became too much to bear, and Britain eventually recognised the extension on condition that its trawlers could continue to fish in their old grounds until 1964.
This pattern of Icelandic territorial extension, Royal Navy deployment, and diplomatic settlement would repeat itself twice more, in 1972-3 and 1975-6. The conflicts were fierce, as Icelandic patrol boats and British frigates engaged in ramming battles; Icelandic vessels employed net-cutters to deprive British trawlers of their catches and fired blank rounds to scare fishermen off. Through exceptionally good seamanship and some luck, the only fatal casualty of these running fights in heavy weather was just one Icelandic sailor, although ships on both sides suffered heavy damage.
As a NATO member, Iceland threatened to withdraw from the alliance unless its fishing demands were met. This would have denied US and NATO aircraft use of Naval Air Station Keflavik, critical to the ASW fight in the North Atlantic. Iceland’s strategic leverage and tactical advantages ultimately doomed the UK to defeat, and the British fishing industry never fully recovered from the loss of access to Icelandic fishing grounds; the goalpost moving again when Britain subsequently joined the EU.
The diplomatic settlements after each dispute favoured Iceland, playing an important part in the legal development of EEZs. Indeed, the principle of the EEZ is now broadly accepted by most nations as a fair way to delineate ownership of maritime resources. This broad acceptance does, however, leave room for conflict, and waters in Asia – such as the South China Sea – have become increasingly contested, as nations fight over shares of minerals, energy and fish. The UK is unlikely to be involved in a dispute of this type and scale in the near future, but the Cod Wars do provide several lessons applicable to the contemporary Royal Navy.
Hull or high water
Firstly, the wars demonstrated the need for a flexible frigate force. The RN was disadvantaged by geography – Icelandic vessels were operating mere miles from their home ports, and could quickly refit and return to action, whilst RN frigates returning to Rosyth, Chatham, Portsmouth or Devonport faced a journey of more than a thousand miles. This disadvantage was compounded by the heavy wear and tear on the British frigates deployed around Iceland. This stemmed, in part, from the construction of ships such as the Leander-class, designed for hunting Soviet submarines at speed. Their light, unarmoured hulls were vulnerable to ramming by Icelandic patrol boats, whilst the rough North Atlantic seas increased the risk of further damage. Moreover, the steam turbine-propelled frigates used throughout the Cod Wars were costly to operate – with complements of more than two hundred men – and their employment was a poor use of relatively sophisticated warships. Today’s limited and expensive fleet of frigates could not be risked similarly.
Current frigate availability presents a particularly painful comparison to past strength. Four frigates and an RFA tanker were typically deployed to Icelandic waters during the Cod Wars, but these relatively small numbers hide the degree of fleet rotation – 32 frigates were involved in the 1972-73 campaign, with 22 frigates taking part in 1975-76. The current 15-escort RN could not rotate a four-ship force off Iceland in this manner, and even the deployment of an initial four-ship fleet would probably be at the expense of abandoning other tasks. It should also be noted that the RN at the time – with around 80 escorts during the 1970s – did not have enough ships to gain strategic victory off Iceland. As such, a contemporary four-frigate deployment would be both impossible to sustain and probably inadequate.
Sold up the River?
Whilst the Cod Wars demonstrate the inadequacy of the current escort fleet, lessons learnt from the disputes have shifted the focus – at least in terms in fisheries – away from frigates to Offshore Patrol Vessels. The experience off Iceland persuaded the RN of the need for a new design of fishery protection vessel – one that was smaller and nimbler, with fewer crew and without the expensive armament attached to normal frigates. Borrowing from a design used by the civilian Scottish Fisheries Protection Squadron, the Navy developed the new Island-class of OPVs, bolstered by a pair of slightly larger Castle-class. The two variants were designed primarily for fishery protection and EEZ enforcement; their replacement, the Batch I River-class, was introduced through the mid-2000s, demonstrating the continued importance placed on EEZ patrol.
The three Batch I Rivers have now been supplemented by five Batch IIs, but these five additional vessels have been permanently based overseas as a low-cost way to sustain British global reach, with a secondary role in EEZ and fishery protection in the waters around British Overseas Territories. The Batch Is, initially paid off in 2018, quickly returned to operations following concerns about Brexit fishery issues and the plan to deploy the Batch IIs overseas. As such, the number of OPVs deployed in British waters remains stable at three, but it is unclear whether this will be sufficient in light of post-Brexit challenges to British fisheries. In May 2021, for example, two OPVs were briefly sent to Jersey after French fishermen planned to blockade St Helier in protest over post-Brexit fishing laws, although the dispute was eventually resolved peacefully.
Since the end of 2021, the Navy is no longer contracted to provide fishery protection duties, with DEFRA outsourcing much of the surveillance work to private contractors. Instead, the Batch Is are now employed primarily on general maritime security patrols, as well as fleet navigation training. Most recently they were named as part of a ‘task force’ deployed to patrol areas with vulnerable Critical Undersea Infrastructure – a job of increasing importance. However, whilst civilian agencies may now play a greater role in fishery protection, recent disputes have demonstrated that naval vessels are sometimes still required; in the event of a sustained conflict, it seems unlikely that the three Batch Is would be a sufficient force to deter a resilient foe.
The Cod Wars may have been ‘fought’ by naval assets, but, at their heart, they represented a primarily political and economic dispute. As such, they provide a useful reminder of the varied threats the RN may face, especially considering the current political focus on protecting British waters. Iceland was, of course, a NATO member when the conflicts occurred, and the Cod Wars demonstrate that the non-convergence of strategic and economic priorities remains a potential source of conflict between actors, even from usual British allies.
They also demonstrate the dangers of the unexpected – the RN was taken by surprise off Iceland, as it was in the Falklands War. Whilst the RN had the hull numbers and flexibility to rapidly change posture and react to the disputes in the North and South Atlantic, this flexibility is now in very short supply.
Main image: HMS Mermaid collides with the Icelandic Coast Guard vessel Pór, March 1976