Iceland history of fishing, cod war video

14th September 2016

Fishing in Iceland dates back to the time of the earliest settlers during the late 9th to early 10th centuries when Norse Vikings migrated from mainland Europe. The topography and climate of the land has always meant that the population has largely been dependant on the sea as a source of food; although there is evidence to suggest that grain was farmed in large quantities before temperatures grew colder in the mid twelfth century.

However, the settlers already had a strong affinity with the sea and knew how to exploit the rich fishing grounds of the Atlantic. Over the 12th and 13th century there is evidence to suggest that Iceland was exporting dried stockfish to mainland Europe. It wasn’t until 1300 that exports had become a major part of the country’s economy as demand grew.

During this period, fisheries in Iceland began to take a shape that continues to dominate the industry today with the seasons being dictated by the spawning, feeding and migration dictating that fishing became a mostly winter activity. Spring and summer saw a scaling down of operations to cater for the small domestic market.

In 1380 Iceland became a part of the Norwegian Kingdom (later becoming the Danish Kingdom until 1814) and had no home rule. As such the country’s fishing industry mainly served as an export industry to Norway. However, when Denmark was also included in the union, the demand from the mainland fell away and fishing in Iceland continued to serve its native population only. In terms of an export market Iceland was prohibited from trading with any other country so, with a population (at the time) of just 75,000 people, large scale commercial operations were virtually non-existent.

At this time, Iceland was one of the poorest nations in Europe but in 1854 the restrictions on exports was lifted and the fisheries began to develop. With access to some of the richest fishing stocks in the Atlantic Ocean, Icelanders knew how to exploit these prolific fishing grounds after centuries of small-scale fishing. Adapting to larger scale, commercial fishing at the turn of the 20th century saw the beginning of a reversal of the countries economics and, by 2000, Iceland was one of the world’s wealthiest nations. Though there are many other industries which assisted in this change in fortunes, there is no doubt that the fishing export market proved to be a stable founding base for the country’s wealth.

The most important turning point for this change in economics was the shark fishing industry. With demand for shark liver oil as a fuel for lamps on the rise the fishing fleets of Iceland were split between cod and shark. From 1830 to 1870 shark fishing became a financially successful operation as overheads were low, processing relatively easy and good profits could be made. Though the boom was short-lived, the wealth that had been accumulated had been well-invested in the fishing fleets such that diversification could be easily managed when demand began to drop.

Fishing Methods

Current fishing methods are varied and take full advantage of the rich variety of species that are both native and abundant within the Icelandic waters. The most common method used is the pelagic trawl which constitutes 36% of the annual catch figures with purse seining and bottom trawling following closely in second and third place with 29% and 20% respectively. Fishermen also use longlining, gillnets, the Danish seine, handlines and the nephrops trawl methods. Traps, pots and scallop dredging is a specialist practice and is undertaken in small numbers due to a decline in these types of fisheries.


Almost entirely bereft of trees, native boatbuilding was largely non-existent and the Icelanders relied on Norwegian and Danish imports for their fleets.

The chronology of Iceland’s fishing history can be categorised by three ages; rowing boats, sail boats and motorised vessels.

Covering by far the longest period, rowing boats were the vessel of choice from the early 10th century through to the early 20th century. The last rowing boats used commercially for fishing did not disappear until the 1920s. Rowing boats could easily be launched from most coastal villages and taken out of the water for maintenance and thus did not require developed ports and harbours.

Boats fitted with sails began to appear to in the 1750’s though they had to use oars due to the lack of reliable wind down the fjords. Mostly open boats, the early craft had a single square sail with later designs adopting a spritsail. The introduction of sailing vessels was a commercial decision to give the flagging Icelandic economy a much-needed boost.

By the early nineteenth century, fishermen began adapting designs and the decked over timber boat known as a schooner was quickly made popular. By 1853, twenty-five such vessels were in use. However, it was the two masted version which took off and is currently experiencing a resurgence in popularity (albeit mainly as a tourist attraction) on the island.

These wooden sailing boats continued to be built until fairly recently with many still in existence today. Most of these boats have seen better days but there have been efforts to restore some. North Sailing, a company offering whale watching tours from their base in Husavik in the North-East of the country, have successfully restored eight such vessels and use them to deliver an authentic experience to tourists. Though they have been converted to carry passengers the restoration has been undertaken by skilled craftsmen and the boats retain the authentic details of the period. With three schooners in their fleet, Haukur, Hildur and Opal, the collection demonstrates the fine art of shipbuilding in Iceland.

The move from rowing boats to sailing boats marked a change in the way the country was being urbanised as these vessels required more permanent facilities as well as larger land-based workforces to process the bigger catches. As a result, migration towards those coastal communities that could support such development, began to change the shape of Iceland’s geography. The two biggest examples are Ísafjörður and Reykjavik. The former had a population of just 76 inhabitants in 1850 but, due to the development of its status as a harbour town, this had grown to 1085 by 1901.

By the end of the 19th century English smacks were being imported in small numbers but in 1905, Iceland took delivery of its first steam trawler (British built). In just a decade a further twenty trawlers were registered in Iceland as commercial fishing really began to pick up in terms of scale. This period marks the age of the motorised fishing vessels.

After the second world war, the fleet of steam trawlers were replaced by more modern vessels (mostly still made of wood and lead the herring heyday of the 1960’s. These sidewinders were eventually replaced with steel-built stern trawlers during the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Those infamous Cod Wars

No brief history of Iceland in the same breath as fishing would be complete with reference to the Cod Wars.

In a series of confrontations with the UK over fishing rights and territorial waters the cod wars ran in 'episodes' from 1958 to 1976 in what was a series of politically charged situations.

After Iceland gained independence from Denmark in 1944 and following the end of the Second World War, the country began to take steps to protect the growing prosperity of it's fishing industry. At the time, the waters around Iceland were subject to dated agreements between Denmark and the United Kingdom over fishing rights but in 1949, Iceland took steps to repeal these laws. Initially extending their fishing waters to 7km in the North of the country, Iceland and the UK came head to head over a decision to implement this universally. The UK responded with sanctions on the Icelandic fishing fleet with a landing ban which came as a real blow; the UK was Iceland's largest export market at the time.

UK fishermen, particularly from the Grimsby area, had long been fishing in the North Atlantic as the cod stocks in the area were abundant and any moves to extend territorial waters would no doubt impact on their own livelihoods as well as the more universal UK economy. The decision, therefore, by Iceland to further extend the exclusion zone for foreign fishing to 22 km was a step too far. With all NATO members opposed to this extension, the UK sent Royal Navy warships to accompany the fishing fleets and thereby continue to fish in the disputed territory. This first cod war lasted from 1 September 1958 to 11 March 1961 when an agreement was reached that Iceland could maintain territorial ownership of the waters up to the 22km zone but that the UK would be able to fish in certain areas for a period of three years. The victory was regarded as an Icelandic one with the UK benefiting from these concessions. The scale of the response from the UK during this period saw 37 warships and 7000 sailors protecting the fishing fleets from just six Icelandic gunboats and 100 coast guards.

In 1973, a second cod war developed when Iceland once again decided to extend its waters from the agreed 22km to 93km; the country stated principally that this was to preserve and protect fish stocks whilst allowing Icelandic fishing fleets to gain a greater share of the landings. Unwilling to allow its fishing industry to be further deprived of these rich grounds but also to prevent allowing a defacto standard to be set on countries instigating such unilateral extensions, the UK openly flouted Iceland's new laws and continued to fish the waters. Yet again, the UK sent Navy vessels to protect the fishing fleet but the Icelandic coast guards, employing net cutters, were not deterred by the show of force and continued to proactively patrol their waters. This second episode lasted until 8 November 1973 when Iceland, once again, had its way; the 93km exclusion zone was recognised but, yet again, the UK received some concessions and were granted permission to catch a further 150,000 tons of fish up to 1975.

In what was the final confrontation, Iceland sought to extend its territorial waters to 370km in November 1975. This third stand off lasted until 1 June 1976 when Iceland, once again, took the victory with the UK accepting landing quotas from the Icelandic government.

In each of the three cod wars there were plenty of skirmishes between the two nations with some damage to individual vessels occurring during 'ramming' incidents and injuries from the net cutting. One Icelandic engineer lost his life when the hull he was repairing after damage from a Navy frigate took on water and he was electrocuted.

At the time, there was a degree of hostility from both sides and frustration from the British fishermen. Now a part of history the skirmishes no longer dominate the relationship between the two nations.


There are some great examples of Icelandic shipbuilding around the country, many of which are used to attract tourists. A lovely example is Húni II, the largest oak ship ever built in Iceland and still in use. Now operating as a leisure tour boat, Húni II was built in Akureyri in 1963 and served as a fishing boat for over thirty years before being developed into its present state. The hull has been converted to a restaurant that can accommodate up to fifty diners. The boat is a hub for retired fishermen who use it as community centre and the lounge, a former cabin, can fit around fifteen people for meetings. In the summer, Húni II is still used to go on fishing trips and over the autumn local schools visit the ship to learn about fishing, marine life as well as how to cook fish.

Situated in Siglufjörður, the Herring Era Museum is Icelands largest maritime museum and celebrates the period of the herring boom as well as providing valuable edication resources for the next generation on the importance of the sea to both the cultural and economic history of the nation. Once the centre of this important era of fishing wealth, Siglufjörður once contributed around 45% of the nation’s wealth. Likened to the Gold Rush period in California, the Herring Era is an important part of the islands fishing history and the museum is a popular tourist destination as well as local resource.

Iceland will always have a strong connection to the sea and its roots in fishing and, as commercial fishing continues to play an important role in the country’s economy, it is an interesting place to see both Icelandic and foreign fishing at work. Some of the best working ports to see evidence of this are Neskaupstaður, Vestmannaeyjar, Eskifjörður and Grindavik as well as Akureyri in the North.

Find a Fishing Boat has good working links with sellers of Icelandic fishing boats both used and new-build. For details of vessels available for sale, click here.

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