Boris Johnson’s first big Brexit fight will come as soon as the UK leaves the EU on Friday evening after the European Commission warned that a future trade deal must adhere to the current Common Fisheries Policy. UK fishermen have repeatedly been at the butt-end of agreements ever since Prime Minister Edward Heath surrendered their access rights to ensure Britain’s membership of the EEC – the precursor to the EU – in 1972. But Mr Heath’s move was merely the final nail in the coffin of a long dispute over international waters around Iceland, fished by the UK since the 15th century, but by the mid-20th century, Icelanders became increasingly dismayed by the British presence.
BBC Four’s “Icelandic Cod Wars” explained how restrictions were first introduced on May 15, 1952, to extend Iceland’s fishing limits due to the lack of agreement with London.
The narrator of the 2013 series explained: “Until 1952, the international agreement allowed British trawlers within three miles of the Icelandic Coast.
“But on May 15, 1952, Iceland extended the limit to four miles, flags were lowered to half-mast in all British fishing ports.
“The Grimsby Evening Telegraph dubbed it Black Thursday, the darkest day the British fishing industry had ever seen.
Boris Johnson will be under pressure to snub British fishermen
Mr Johnson said he wants to take back control of British waters
It’s the darkest day the British fishing industry had ever seen
“The Icelanders continued to worry about overfishing and, in 1958, fishery limits were discussed at the first law of the sea conference in Geneva.”
Robert Ellis, a British captain, explained how a lack of a deal from the Government put fishermen’s lives at danger.
He said: “Extending from the three miles to four was not a problem, not from a fisherman’s point of view.
“It was the point-to-point degree introduced which didn’t just cut out hundreds of square miles of fishing ground, but really just denied any shelter, you couldn’t get into them to shelter from the weather.
“So when the weather got atrocious, we had to stop fishing, or force your men to work through it and that’s what happened.”
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The Cod Wars began in 1952
It would mark the start of three so-called “Cod Wars,” which would continue until 1976, each dispute ending with an emphatic Iceland victory.
By 1961, the Government had accepted a 12-mile Icelandic fishing limit, which remained in place until the second Cod War of 1972.
It came just a year before Britain joined the EEC, after Iceland extended its fishing limits significantly to 50 miles, to “conserve fish stocks” and “increase share in catches”.
Again, the Government contested the move, along with all Western European states, but failed to reach an agreement, this time leading to direct conflict between the British trawlers and the Icelandic Coast Guard.
Skippers failed to comply with the new limit and played “Rule Britannia” across the radio when pursued, launched spears and potatoes at boats and tossed nylon ropes in the waters as patrol ships closed in.
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The Icelandic Coast Guard pursued British trawlers
Ships collided in the North Atlantic
Fishermen were watching their profits dwindle by the day, from loss of catches, damage to boats and fines from Iceland, but back at home, Mr Heath caused them another headache.
The Prime Minister, who was “ready to pay any price to join the EEC,” according to an account by Sir Con O’Neil, the diplomat who led the negotiating team, placed fishing towards the bottom of his priorities when proposing to join.
Therefore, not only was the 50 miles around Iceland off-limits, but Britain’s waters were opened up to the rest of the bloc, and British fishermen were limited to what they could catch in their own ports and European waters.
The third Cod War began in July 1975, when the Icelandic government looked to extend the fishing limits once again, this time to 200 miles.
The Government did not recognise the large increase to the exclusion zone and so an issue occurred with British fishermen carried on their activities in the disputed zone.
Edward Health opened up British waters to Europe
The blunder led to British fishing trawlers having their nets cut and trawlers rammed by Icelandic ships, again affecting their livelihood and putting lives at risk.
A more serious turn of events came when Iceland threatened closure of the NATO base at Keflavík, which would have severely impaired NATO’s ability to deny access to the Atlantic Ocean to the Soviet Union.
As a result, the Government agreed to have its fishermen stay outside Iceland’s 200-mile exclusion zone without a specific agreement, until NATO intervened, putting forwards an agreement for 24 British trawlers to be allowed inside the 200-mile zone and fish a total of 30,000 tonnes.
As a consequence of the Cod Wars, the already-declining British fisheries were hit hard by being excluded from historically prime fishing grounds.
The economies of the large northern fishing ports in the United Kingdom, such as Grimsby, Hull, and Fleetwood, were severely affected, with thousands of skilled fishermen and people in related trades being put out of work.
Heath came under pressure to resolve the issue
Device used by Iceland to slice trawler’s nets
In 2012, the Government offered a multimillion-pound compensation deal and apology to fishermen who lost their livelihoods in the Seventies.
More than 35 years after the workers lost their jobs, the £1,000 compensation offered to 2,500 fishermen was criticised for being insufficient and excessively delayed.
Guommundur Kjaenested, commanding officer of the Icelandic Coast Guard, revealed during the same BBC series that British fishermen were among the bravest he ever encountered.
He said: “I enjoyed dealing with the British.
“At the beginning, they fought like lions, but when they realised the game was up, they simply gave in.
“Fishermen of other nationalities, the Belgians for example, especially the Belgians, were so soft they began to cry.
“That was my worst experience in my career at sea, a skipper crying in my cabin as I was threatening him with a jail sentence and a steep fine.”