The Cod Wars in Iceland

The Icelandic Coast Guard defended Iceland during the Cod Wars

How did the Cod Wars in Iceland begin? Who were the main belligerents, and who came out on top of the conflict? Read on to find out more about the Cod Wars. 

Iceland is one of the few nations on earth not to have its own military. Given the minuscule size of its population, the prospect of ever forming one has long seemed farcical and unnecessary. 

Even so, the country does possess a Coast Guard. Its steel grey vessels can often be seen sailing by Reykjavík’s Faxaflói Bay. For a nation surrounded by water, it is the Coast Guard who are called in terms of crisis. This might include a marine emergency or to apprehend suspicious seafarers. 

Without a military of its own, Iceland’s protection rests on a bilateral defence agreement between the United States and Iceland. Among local people, the pact has been controversial since it was first signed in 1951. This is on account that it allowed for the USA to form a permanent military presence in the country.

A map showing Iceland and the UK
Photo: Groubani. Wikimedia. CC

Has Iceland taken part in a war?


If one thing can be said about Icelanders, it is that they value peace, both at home and abroad. The notion of partaking in combat is foreign, unappealing, and something better left to more powerful, and, crucially,
distant neighbours. 

But even with this distaste for war, Iceland has still managed to stray into global conflict in the past. More surprising than their participation is the fact they have come out victorious each and every time.  

We talk, of course, about the Cod Wars

The Cod Wars were a historic series of clashes with the United Kingdom over fishing rights. 

Locally, Icelanders refer to this period of dispute as Þorskastríðin, “the cod strife,” or Landhelgisstríðin, “the wars for the territorial waters.” 

The events occurred in various chapters: 1958–1961, 1972–73 and 1975–76. 

What were the reasons behind the Cod Wars? 

Boats docked in a harbour in Iceland.
Golli. The Cod Wars involved Icelandic fishing rights.

The major cause of the Cod Wars was a dispute over fishing rights in the North Atlantic. It would remain the sole point of contention between the two island nations for decades to come. It is generally acknowledged that the first confrontation followed Iceland’s decision to expand its coastal territory. 

The small nation expanded from 3 to 4 nautical miles (7 km) in 1952 on the behest of the International Court of Justice. Many believe this was the first spark to ignite the conflict. 

Historical roots of the Cod Wars

iceland districts
Photo: Wikimedia. CC.

But actually, these resentments can be traced back further. As early as the 14th century, British fishing boats sailed around Iceland in search of a larger catch. 

For a country with a growing sense of identity and independence, this created tension within Iceland. After all, its people relied on fishing to survive. More importantly, it caused friction between the United Kingdom and Denmark, who ruled Iceland at the time. 

In 1414, King Eric of Denmark even went so far as to ban all trade with England. He also complained to King Henry V directly, citing the importance of Icelandic fish stock to the local population. Even so, the United Kingdom did little to curb its fishing efforts. Not even when the Icelandic government allowed British ships to fish there on seven-year licences. 

Pressures of a changing world


With the advent of steam technology, tension between Denmark and the UK only increased. In 1893, Denmark claimed that Iceland’s coastal waters were 50 nmi (93 km). The British refused to recognise it, and continued to fish wherever they desired. 

Boats in a museum
Photo: Golli. Museums are a great way to explore Icelandic history

More capable ships allowed for quicker journeys to farther-away destinations. The large-hauls from Iceland’s waters were too much of a temptation to resist. 

Soon enough, Danish gunships were routinely penalising British ships discovered skulking too close. These hefty fines became a point of contention in themselves. The British public soon found themselves asking the government; why not use the full might of the Royal Navy to intimidate the Danes? 

Militaristic scare tactics made sense from Britain’s perspective. At the end of the 19th century, Britain’s naval prowess was to be admired and feared in equal measure. After all, it was the reason why the United Kingdom ruled a global empire. 

And so, in a perfect display of gunboat diplomacy, Britain’s ships put on a show of force in both 1896 and 1897. The terrifying sight of Britain’s mighty warships was a clear warning to the Danes not to push their luck. 

The case of the Caspian 

 

 

Only two years later, a battle took place between Danish warships and the steam trawler, Caspian, which was illegally fishing in Iceland’s water. After firing on it with live ammunition, the Caspian was damaged enough to ensure its skipper, Charles Henry Johnson, was arrested. However, in one of the conflict’s stranger moments, a shipmate of Johnson’s managed to regain control of the Caspian and flee. As the Danes were unable to catch up, the Caspian returned to Grimsby harbour in a state of disrepair, its crew grateful to be free and alive.

As much can not be said for Charles Henry Johnson. Lashed to the mast, he was taken against his will to Torshavn, the capital of the then Denmark-ruled Faroe Islands. Once there, he was tried for illegal fishing and assault, then jailed for a full month. All in all, the sentencing was light, but it would not be the end of the conflict. 

In fact, it was only just beginning… 

When competition becomes conflict 

Former UK prime ministers (1945)
Photo: Levan Ramishvili. Flickr. CC. Public Domain – The UK Government in 1945.

After Iceland expanded its coastal waters in 1952, Britain retaliated by banning all Icelandic ships from docking at local ports. As always, the United Kingdom believed they had a right to fish closer to Iceland than they were being allowed to, and they were unwilling to simply roll over.

Circumstances further soured after a United Nations conference in 1958. The purpose of the meeting was to determine whether countries should be allowed to extend their territorial waters to 12 nautical miles (22 km). After much deliberation, no agreement was reached. Regardless of the deadlock, Iceland went ahead and expanded its waters to the maximum level, placing further pressure on the UK’s fishing industry.

The British saw it as a step too far. What we in modern parlance call a red line crossed. Conflict soon ensued. 

The First Cod War (1958–1961)

Photo: Golli. Small boat fishermen crowd the Arnarstapi harbour each summer for the coastal fishing season

The first chapter of the Cod Wars conflict began at midnight 1 September 1958. It coincided exactly with Iceland’s expansion from 4 to 12 nautical miles coming into effect. It is worth noting that all members of NATO but Iceland were against this unilateral extension. The British simply refused to recognise it. 

In fact, the United Kingdom would go to great expense to make sure fishing continued. Under the protection of four warships, twenty trawlers continued to fish off the Westfjords and the south east of Iceland. Infuriated with Britain’s reluctance to accept new territorial boundaries, many Icelanders came out in protest. 

Britain enflames the Cod Wars conflict

 

These protests were met with mockery. From the British Embassy in Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavik, the ambassador, Andrew Gilchrist, serenaded them by playing the bagpipes and blasting military music over his gramophone. 

While it might seem unprofessional today, the ambassador’s confidence was not unfounded. With merely seven patrolling vessels and only one PBY-6A Catalina flying boat under their jurisdiction, there was very little Iceland could do to resist the British from behaving as they wanted. 

Sun Voyager
Photo: Golli. The Sun Voyager sculpture in Reykjavik

In fact, one of Iceland’s ships was a whaling boat modified to be combat-ready. As the historian, Guðni Th Jóhannesson, wrote; “only the flagship Þór (Thor) could effectively arrest and, if necessary, tow a trawler to harbour.”

Still, this did not stop other Icelandic ships from attempting to do so. One of the most famous incidents in the first Cod War was when the ICGV Ægir attempted to apprehend a British trawler, only to be stopped by HMS Russell. Later, the V/s María Júlía shot at another trawler called the Kingston Emerald, forcing it to flee. Only a month later, V/s Þór chased down a ship called Hackness, but once again, HMS Russell came to its aid, forcing the Icelanders to retreat.

Iceland faces a superpower


Almost immediately, it was clear that Britain’s military might would be a difficult obstacle for the Icelandic nation to overcome. And so, they turned to diplomacy. First, Iceland threatened to leave NATO should its claim over its waters not be respected. Next, politicians promised to expel any US forces stationed in Iceland. There was no other choice but to use threats to achieve their aims. 

The United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea between 1960 and 1961 brought about a settlement that was befitting for both parties. Iceland would be allowed to maintain its territorial waters, so long as Britain was permitted to fish in certain parts, during certain seasons. The agreement also stipulated that any further conflict between Iceland and the United Kingdom regarding fishing rights would be handled by the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

For a time, there was peace between the islands. But it would not last. 

The Second Cod War (1972–73)

HMS Scylla and Óðinn collide
Photo: Issac Newton. Wikimedia. CC.

The second chapter in this conflict over fishing rights began September 1972. Once again, Iceland made a decision to extend their territorial waters, this time to 50 nmi. In doing so, they aimed to protect their fish stocks, and increase their share in any catches made around Iceland. 

Unsurprisingly, Britain had objections once again, as did members of the Warsaw Pact and all other Western European states. Actually, it was only the African nations who sided with Iceland’s expansion, claiming it was an effective means of negating Western imperialism. 

During the Second Cod War, Iceland changed its tactics. Instead of attempting to tow British trawlers, they opted to cut their fishing lines. Using net cutters – otherwise known as trawlwire cutters –  this strategy initially worked with great success. One example might be when the ICGV Ægir encountered an unmarked trawler off the coast of Hornbanki. The Icelanders asked for details of the trawler’s origins, but their request for information was met only by Rule Britannia being played over the radio. 

In response, the ICGV Ægir cut the trawlers lines, resulting in a heated exchange between both crews. Not only did the British sailors throw various objects aboard the 

The Third Cod War (1975–76)

HMS Mermaid collides with the Coast Guard ship, Thor
Photo: A.Davey. Flickr. CC.

Britain and Iceland would compete for a final time, this time beginning in 1975. It would prove to be the conflict’s most dramatic chapter given the violent collisions between opposing ships.

It is important to note that British fishing was already in decline by the mid-seventies. Because of this, this particular dispute with Iceland felt considerably more desperate than before.

In 1973, most countries within the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea agreed on a 100 nm limit on fishing. However, Iceland was unsatisfied, settling on a limit double that which had been stipulated. Once again, Britain refused to recognise Iceland’s decision.

The Cod Wars’ violent finale

 

One of the biggest events of the conflict took place in December 1975. The Icelandic Coast Guard vessel, V/s Þór, discovered three British trawlers sheltering from a fierce storm. When ordered to leave, the trawlers looked to comply. But after only a few miles, the ships began to deliberately veer into the Icelandic ship. The Icelanders responded by firing blanks, then live ammunition. Even so, the V/s Þór was forced to divert to Loðmundarfjörður for repairs. After this violent bout, the ship was dangerously close to sinking.

As to who was in the wrong depends on which opposing side one listens to. In response, the Royal Navy deployed 22 frigates and seven supply ships. But even in the face of such adversity, the Icelanders continued to fight. By the end of the war, a total of 55 ramming incidents were recorded.

In February 1976, Iceland made the decision to end diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom. Iceland’s government also heavily implied that it would withdraw from NATO should it fail to meet its aims. Ultimately, this threat would decide the outcome of the war. As the Americans put pressure on the British to end the conflict, it would be Iceland who, once again, came out victorious.

What were the consequences of the Cod Wars?

An Icelandic Coast Guard vessel
Guðmundur St. Valdimarsson, Icelandic Coast Guard/Facebook. New patrol ship Freyja

The Cod Wars had a great number of consequences for both Iceland and the United Kingdom.

Some of the larger northern fishing ports in England were heavily affected by Britain’s defeat. Once thriving harbours like those in Fleetwood, Hull, and Grimsby saw thousands of skilled fishermen out of work, and it is estimated that it cost over £1 million to repair damages to naval frigates.

In 2012, the UK government offered £1,000 compensation to 2,500 fishermen who lost their livelihood during the conflict. This deal was heavily criticised at the time for not only being far too late, but financially insulting.

Here in Iceland, their victories over Britain are considered a point of pride. Proof that even the world’s smallest nations can make a great impact on the global stage. Especially when bullied into a corner.

Today, the Cod Wars are still sometimes covered in the media, especially when Iceland and Britain find themselves opponents. For example, during the ICESAVE financial crisis in 2008, and in the lead up to the England – Iceland football match during the 2016 Euro tournament.

Conclusion 

cod wars Coast Guard Vessel Óðinn
Coast Guard Vessel Óðinn was a vital part of Iceland’s defences during the Cod Wars. Today, it’s docked by the Reykjavík Maritime Museum as part of its exhibition.

Today, the United Kingdom and the Republic of Iceland remain close allies. Given their close proximity, many Icelanders choose to live and study in the UK. In turn, thousands of British tourists choose to explore Iceland each and every year. Some of them even call the country home. 

In 2017, the Icelandic ship ICGV Óðinn and the trawler, Arctic Corsair, exchanged bells as a sign of friendship between the town of Hull and the city of Reykjavík.

You can learn more about the Cod Wars at the Reykjavík Maritime Museum. Not only will you find plenty of informative display boards, but also countless artefacts from this fascinating chapter in Iceland’s history.

Coastal Fishermen Face Shortest Season Ever if Quota is Not Increased

Iceland’s Association of Small Boat Owners (Landssamband smábátaeiganda) has sent a formal request to the Minister of Fisheries calling on her to increase the coastal fishing quota for this year by 4,000 tonnes. The coastal fishing season is intended to last from May until August, but so far this year 72% of the cod quota has already been caught. If additional quota is not added, this coastal fishing season could turn out to be the shortest ever, leaving some 726 fishermen out of work and impacting secondary jobs in harbours and fish processing.

Not enough quota for independent fishermen

Iceland’s current coastal fishing system was implemented 15 years ago with the aim to give smaller, independent fishermen a path into the industry. The number of boats with coastal quota grew from 663 last year to 726 this year, and the number of fishermen has increased steadily in recent years, likely due to a significant increase in fish prices. This year the cod quota set aside for coastal fishing is 10,000 tonnes, 5% of the total annual quota. For the number of coastal fishermen wanting to partake, that quota is not enough. Last year, the quota ran out in mid-July and based on current catch amounts, it could run out even earlier this season.

East Iceland disproportionately affected

When quota runs out early in the season, it affects Iceland’s regions disproportionately, as the cod arrives to the western regions earlier in the season before travelling north and east later in the summer. If the quota is finished before the fish complete their loop around the island, fishermen in East Iceland can miss out on the season entirely. The Association of Small Boat Owners pointed out that increasing the quota for this season would ensure equal distribution of quota between regions.

Cod stocks are in good shape

The latest figures on cod stocks from the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute show that the fish is in good shape, and the Association of Small Boat Owners assert that there is room to add up to 7,000 tonnes to the cod quota without negatively impacting fish stocks. The association also points out that it is unlikely for the largest companies on the market to reach the total allowable catch quota as there are summer vacations and closures ahead at the country’s largest fish processing plants.

Read more about coastal fishing in Iceland.

More Cod, Haddock, and Herring in 2023-2024 Fishing Season

coastal fishing boat

Iceland’s Marine and Freshwater Research Institute (MFRI) has released advice on fishing opportunities for over 20 fish and invertebrate stocks in Icelandic waters for the 2023-2024 year. The recommendations include a 1% increase in the total allowable catch for cod, a 23% increase for haddock, and a 40% increase for herring, three key species for the Icelandic fishing industry. Fishing quotas issued by authorities are based on the MFRI’s recommendations.

More cod, haddock, and herring

The advised TAC (total allowable catch) for cod has been increased as there is a higher estimate of the reference biomass compared to the previous year. That mass is also expected to increase slightly in the next two or three years when the 2019 and 2020 cohorts of cod will be counted as adult fish. Those cohorts are estimated to be above average in terms of size. The 2023-2024 TAC for haddock will be 76,415 tonnes, a 23% increase from the previous year’s allowable catch, as the 2019-2021 cohorts are above average.

The stock size of the Icelandic summer spawning herring has increased following a period of constant decline between 2008 and 2019. Therefore, the advice for the 2023-2024 fishing year is 92,634 tonnes or a 40% increase from the previous fishing year’s TAC. Golden redfish advice represents a 62% increase from the previous year, but as recruitment in the species has been low, the advice is likely to decrease sharply in the coming years.

Less saithe and scallop and no beaked redfish

Recommendations for some fish and invertebrates have decreased compared to the previous fishing year, however. The advice for saithe, an important species for coastal fishermen, has been decreased by 7%. The total allowable catch for Iceland scallop has decreased by 19%, and the MFRI advises that no catch should be taken for demersal beaked redfish in the 2023-2024 year, as the stock is now estimated to be below the limit reference point for spawning stock biomass. It is not expect to recover in the near future.

The recommendations can be seen in full on the MFRI website.

Give a Man a Fish

It’s just after six in the morning and Guðmundur Geirdal is pouring his first cup of coffee. It’s spring, so the sun has already been up for a couple of hours but a light veiling of clouds means that there’s a fresh snap to the air. Down by the Arnarstapi harbour, the squeaky cries of the seabirds are loud enough to drown out the murmured chatting of the other fishermen preparing their boats for the day.

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10,000 Tonnes of Cod to Coastal Fishing Pool

fishing in Iceland

Minister of Food, Agriculture, and Fisheries Svandís Svavarsdóttir has signed a new regulation on coastal fishing allocating 10,000 tonnes of cod to the coastal fishing pool this season. The percentage of coastal fishing of the total permitted catch of cod is now almost five percent, which is similar to the fishing season of 2022, the first year that such a large part of the total permitted catch was allocated to coastal fishing.

The coastal fishing season is from May to August. The upcoming season is the 15th since coastal fishing was established. Coastal fishing in Icelandic is in part intended to open up opportunities for smaller, independent parties within the fishing industry.

Alþingi is currently reading a bill on amendments to the law on fisheries management due to the zoning of coastal fisheries. The bill was approved for submission by the government on February 24. The Ministry of Food underlined that if the bill is passed, it may be necessary to make changes to the 2023 coastal fishing regulation in accordance with legislation.

Icelandic Cod Stock Endangered by Warming Waters

capelin loðna fishing

Unprecedented changes to the waters surrounding Iceland may put the nation’s cod stock in danger, a professor in biological oceanography has told Fréttablaðið. A new era in our ocean biosphere is under way.

Warming waters, new patterns

Katherine Richardson is a professor in biological oceanography at the University of Copenhagen and the leader of the ROCS (Queen Margrethe’s and Vigdís Finnbogadóttir´s Interdisciplinary Research Centre on Ocean, Climate, and Society).

Among the ROCS’ research projects is analysing core samples extracted from the ocean floor in Reykjanes by a vessel operated by Iceland’s Marine & Freshwater Research Institute (Hafró). The results of the research are being introduced at a conference in Reykholt, Fréttablaðið reports.

“We can expect changes to fish stocks around Iceland, a decrease in certain species, e.g. cod, which prefer colder waters, and an increase in species that prefer warmer waters, e.g. mackerel and sardines,” Katherine told Fréttablaðið.

New research shows that formerly unknown changes are occurring in the waters surrounding Iceland. Katherine emphasises, however, that it’s currently not possible to generalise regarding the effect of these changes on fish stocks in Iceland.

“We’re entering a new era when it comes to the ocean biosphere, including fisheries,” Katherine observed, adding that those who participate in the fishing industry need to be aware of these changes.

As reported by Fréttablaðið this summer, the cod quota will be lowered by 13% next year; Iceland’s Marine & Freshwater Research Institute has overestimated cod recruitment over the past few years.

More research required

Fréttablaðið also quotes Daði Már Kristófersson, professor of economics at the University of Iceland, who stated that there are plenty of unknowns when it comes to the ecosystem surrounding Iceland – and that it is surprising, given the stakes, that Icelanders have not investigated these ecosystems.

Research indicates that capelin – a cold-water fish and a key food for cod – propagation patterns are changing.

As noted in an article in the New York Times in 2019, ocean temperatures around Iceland have increased between 1.8 and 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 20 years.

Regional Division of Coastal Fishing Quotas May Be Reinstated

Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture Svandís Svavarsdóttir would like to make the coastal fishing system fairer, not least by reinstating a regional division of fishing quotas, RÚV reports.

According to the National Association of Small Boat Owners, 700 boats caught 11,000 tons of cod during Iceland’s costal fishing season this year, as well as 1,500 tons of coalfish (also called pollock), and 105 tons of other catch. On average, 656 kilos [1446 lbs] of cod were caught per fishing trip, which is a 6% increase over last year.

Fish prices have never been higher than they are this summer. The average price for cod is 23% higher than it was last year; coalfish is currently priced an astounding 85% higher than it was in 2021.

Nevertheless, the costal fishing season was short—only 46 days—and ended last Friday, about a month earlier than planned. This decision has been widely criticized with some saying that the sea is full of fish that may not be caught.

Not everyone getting their fair share

Minister of Fisheries Svandís Svavarsdóttir says that the season ended “sooner than we would have liked,” and said the decision to end the season last week had to do with how much fish had been caught overall. But she recognizes that under the terms of the current system, coastal fishermen are not all on equal footing with one another. As such, it is her intention to reinstate the regional division of fishing quotas.

“That will make it more likely that everyone gets their cut,” she explained, “as opposed to when the entire country is defined as one region.” Under the current arrangement, some fishermen are able to catch their fair share, she continued, “especially in the north and east.”

Current system not a failure, but ‘far too complicated’

Under the current quota system, coastal fishing quotas make up 5% of the total catch. In the long term, Svandís says she’d like to see the coastal fishing quota make up a larger part of the overall quota. She was not, however, prepared to quote a particular figure at this time.

Asked if she considered the current fishing system a failure, Svandís said no, but she did concede that it’s a very complicated one. “It’s far too complicated; it can be simplified and clarified and I think that when we’re thinking about simplifying it and clarifying it, we also need to [give some thought to] making it more equitable.”

Less Cod, More Haddock To Be Fished Next Year

fish fishing haddock

The Icelandic Marine and Freshwater Research Institute has suggested a 6% decrease in cod catch quotas for the next fishing season. A notice from the Institute states that the decline is due to a lower estimate of the reference biomass compared to previous years and the effect of the catch stabiliser in the harvest control rule.

The Institute is hopeful for cod in Icelandic waters, stating: “The reference biomass of cod is expected to increase slightly in the next two to three years when the 2019 and 2020 cohorts enter the reference biomass as they are estimated to be above average in terms of size.”

Meanwhile, suggested catch quotas for haddock increase to 62,219 tonnes, up 23% from last year.

MFRI Director Þorsteinn Sigurðsson stated in an introductory meeting that several fish stocks, including tusk, ling, blue ling, beaked redfish, anglerfish, witch, megrim, and langoustine, have been experiencing poor recruitment in the past few years, Fiskifréttir report. These fish stay in the warmer waters to the south and west coast of Iceland. “Unfortunately, there seems to be little change for the better. The reasons for this negative development are unknown, but the most likely explanation is that it’s due to changes in Iceland’s marine environment.”

Coastal Fishermen Unhappy With Reduced Cod Quota

overfishing iceland

Small boat fishermen in Iceland are unhappy with the government’s decision to reduce their cod fishing quota from 10,000 tonnes down to 8,500 for the coming summer season, Vísir reports. Arthúr Bogason, chairman of the National Union of Small Boat Owners (Landssamband smábátaeigenda) says the government has not provided any data to support the decision and hopes it will be reconsidered. A meeting with Fisheries Minister Svandís Svavarsdóttir on the matter was inconclusive.

Arthúr says he does not know whether the decision to reduce the quota was made in the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture or by the Directorate of Fisheries (Fiskistofa) but the union is working to find out. However, since the decision was made on December 21, the phone at the union office has not stopped ringing. He adds that the Left-Green Movement, the party to which Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture Svandís Svavarsdóttir belongs, has supported coastal fishermen in the past and worked to improve their conditions. The decision comes across as change of direction from the party. Arthúr brought up the issue in a meeting with Svandís one week ago. He stated that although the discussion went well and the union expects fruitful collaboration with the incoming minister.

Last year a total of 670 fishermen held coastal fishing licences. Coastal fishing is not an easy job, according to Arthúr, but the number of fishermen in the field has remained relatively steady since 2009, when the current regulations governing coastal fishing were implemented. The regulations permit all fishermen to fish in coastal waters provided they fulfill certain requirements, which Arthúr describes as extensive. “Certain politicians predicted [coastal fishing] would explode. That thousands would sign up and it was best avoided.” However, since the current system was implemented, the number of fishermen has fluctuated between 600 and 726, according to Arthúr. “While handline fishing is romantic, there’s a lot of hard work and sweat and tears mixed in with the romance,” he stated.

In the Name of Cod

cod wars Coast Guard Vessel Óðinn

You’ve heard about the world wars, the Six-Day War, the Hundred Years’ War, and the not-really-a-war Cold War, but you’d have to be an expert either in Icelandic history or international fishing regulations to be familiar with the Anglo-Icelandic Cod Wars.

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