Herring and Class Struggle

Capitalism came late to Iceland. At the end of the 19th century this large, wind-swept, thinly populated island was made up of small towns, farms and seasonal fishing stations. Then European capitalists saw another Klondike in the herring-rich waters of the north Atlantic..

Sunday, 19 June 2016

For Cod's Sake - Iceland's cod wars with Britain 1958-1976: exhibition at Vikin, Reykjavik's Maritime Museum

This small vibrant exhibition looks at the three 20th century Cod Wars, þorskastríðin in Icelandic, when Icelandic and foreign trawlers, Icelandic coastguard ships and British gunships, rammed and shot at each other each as Iceland struggled to expand its protected fisheries. Trawl nets were cut, men threatened and one man died as Iceland fought long skirmishes in Landhelgisstríðin, the war for territorial waters against all comers.

Using film footage, newspapers, photographs and cartoons the story builds from 1 September 1958 when a new Icelandic law expanded its fishery zone from four to 12 nautical miles (NM) (22.2 km). The exhibition is not triumphalist or nationalist but inevitably this is a story of a very small country fighting off Britain with a population over 254 times larger. [Pop Iceland 1976 - 220,154 and Britain - 56.21 million]

Heath and the stubborn cod, from Stuttgater Zeitung reprinted in Þjóðviljinn newspaper, 30 May 1973

Föðurland vort hálft er hafið, half of our home is the sea
New technology meant that bigger catches were becoming easier to get and overfishing began to outstrip the ability of the most popular species, including cod to replenish themselves. In 1952 the old international three mile exclusion zone had been extended to four nautical miles in Iceland but it was clear that the four mile exclusion zone was routinely flouted because the catch was much more valuable than the fines imposed by the courts.

All members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) fiercely opposed the extension of Iceland’s exclusion zone—they couldn’t do much about the Soviet Union claiming a 12 mile zone, but the fish-rich water around little Iceland were accessible to dozens of countries and they had no intention of giving up any of it.

Within two days of the new law, a British trawler, Northern Foam, from Grimsby was caught fishing in the expanded exclusive zone. Nine men from the coastguard vessels Þór and Maríu Júlia were sent to take control of the trawler—but ended up not quite prisoners on the British frigate Eastbourne for 12 days because the trawlers refused to come quietly and the coastguards refused to take their men back.

By the following April, the British government was protesting that the crew of þór had fired live shells at the British trawler, Arctic Viking and that Maríu Júlia, “repeatedly executed dangerous maneuvers in attempts to obstruct British trawlers while on the high seas”     

Iceland appeared determined not to back down and other countries wanted the same limit so by 1961 British government accepted the 12 NM limit. But this zone was never going to have been large enough to preserve fish stocks, nor for Icelanders to keep a substantial share of the fish profits and in September 1973 it again extended its fishing limits to 50 NM—93 km.

“Við semjum ekki, við sigrum þá - "We won’t settle, we will beat them"
Necessity being the mother of invention, the Icelandic coast guards began to enforce the new exclusion zone with net cutters designed to slice off the foreign ships’ trawls if they fished within the new exclusion zone. The wire cutters were old mine sweeper equipment with added road grading blades. The captains of the foreign trawlers raged that it was dangerous to cut a trawl—any wire or rope springing back would kill the man it hit. 

The Icelandic coast guards argued that it wasn’t particularly dangerous because the trawl was cut so deep that the tension was released into the sea itself. To prove the point, on 18 January 1973 they cut the nets of eighteen trawlers and British boats were forced out of the Icelandic fishing zone unless they had the protection of the Royal Navy.

Trawl clippers, made out of old mine sweeping gear modified with road grading blades, Vikin Maritme Museum

What was probably much more dangerous was ships ramming each other. British Navy ships rammed Icelandic coast guard ships to prevent them from cutting trawls while the Icelandic trawler Baldur, refitted as a coast guard ship, was so successful at damaging British trawlers that British skippers called it the can-opener.

Engineer, Halldór Hallfreðsson died by electrocution on the Coast Guard vessel Ægir, as he was holding a welding torch when the ship was hit by a large wave. The British frigate Apollo was blamed for his death as Halldór was repairing the damage Apollo did when it rammed Ægir on 29 August 1973.

The exhibition uses vivid footage of the British journalist Norman Rees who reported from the Þór in 1976. See some of it here.

Three-day Millionaires
The exhibition also includes the work of historian Alec Gill who has interviewed and documented the lives and industry of Hull’s “Three-day millionaires”, the fishermen who worked the Icelandic fisheries until 1976. His invaluable work, done on a shoe-string, records in great detail the ordinary lives and culture that grew out of the Hull fishing industry centred on the community in Hessle Road. 

His series of documentaries on DVDs are available here. This is what the British fisherman were fighting to preserve and what they lost when some 3,500 fishermen and many more men and women on land lost jobs with the Icelandic 200 mile exclusion zone.

Documenting the lives and work of a vanished culture

A nation united?
Each Cod War ended in a negotiated settlement, involving Nato, various foreign ministers and even Presidents Nixon and Pompidou. Many people in the Icelandic fishing industries were unhappy at the outcomes, especially in the 1970s when mass meetings and demonstrations protested the deals made, which included a limited numbers of foreign boats being allowed in to the exclusion zones. Many people couldn't see why any foreign boats should be allowed in. 

As with every struggle in history, there is a fight here for interpretation. The exhibition notes that historian Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson, who is currently favourite, with just over 55 percent in the polls for the Icelandic presidential elections held next week, wrote an article in 2011 on the Cod Wars and how they are remembered. 

"The Cod Wars are an important part of Icelander's collective memory. They are said to be a fine example of the resilience that the nation can display when it is confronted and evidence of Icelander's international relevance. Some of this is true, but the history is somewhat more complicated when reviewed closely. The unity is exaggerated, little is made of the fact that Icelanders had to negotiate victory and it perpetuates a misunderstanding about Icelander's initiatives in relation to the Law of the Sea. This results in the myth of united heroes and the real picture fades in the shadows."

Guðni T Jóhannesson and the class he may soon represent like to argue that progress in the world comes from international law. For them, unilateralism and the vehement determination of ordinary people is difficult. For everyone else, it should be apparent that international law is very often made to reflect and contain the struggles of ordinary people.

The victories of the Cod Wars did not solve all the problems of the Icelandic fishing industries and few thought they would. The exclusive fishing zones were effectively privatised and still overfished. As quotas were cut to preserve stocks, they became transferable, were sold and concentrated in fewer hands. Factories closed and the villages that depended on them shared Hull's fate of unemployment and the closure of services as families and young people left to find work. But the Cod Wars were also fought for the self-determination and the independence of ordinary people in a small country frequently used as a pawn between Washington and Moscow.

Coastguard vessel Oðinn fought in the Cod Wars and is now docked in Vikin

For more on the Coastguard vessel Oðinn and its rescue of Hull fishermen click here.And here for more on Capitalism and the destruction of fisheries.

The exhibition runs until end of August 2016, for further information see Vikin Maritime Museum