After the Second World War, it became apparent that British fisheries would face increasing international competition. The USSR posed a threat as it began to develop a major fleet. The British government considered various schemes for reorganising the industry and increasing its efficiency.
The depleted fishing fleet was in need of extensive refurbishment. The interruption of fishing during the war led to growing stocks of fish in the North Sea but, by 1947, catches were once again in decline. In addition, a collapse in fish prices in November 1949 left the industry in dire straits. The government responded by creating the White Fish Authority to administer grants and loans to near and middle-water fleets.
The industry revived to some extent during the 1950s and the British distant-water catch peaked in 1956 at 8.5 million tons. However, a period of gradual decline followed. Increasingly, the problems of distant-water trawling centred on limited access due to claims of territorial rights. The British distant-water fishing industry was based on the idea of freedom in the high seas, and the assumption that the sea was an open resource to be exploited. This idea became increasingly challenged in the post-war period.
Until the 1960s, Britain remained a major player in long-distance trawling. By 1976, the industry had fallen into decline as the Icelandic government denied access to its fishing grounds.
The Norwegian four-mile territorial limit
During the 1930s, the Norwegian government claimed a four-mile territorial limit and, after the Second World War, these limits were enforced. When the Norwegians impounded a number of British trawlers, the British government took the case to the International Court of Justice. The court found in favour of the Norwegians, who had argued for the primacy of local interests.
Iceland, the 12-mile limit and the first Cod War
The Icelandic government had long-standing concerns over the depletion of fish stocks along its coast. Following its independence from Denmark in 1944, Iceland annulled the Anglo-Danish Territorial Waters Agreement of 1901, which was due to expire in 1951. This treaty mutually restricted territorial waters to within three miles of the coast, but now the Icelandic government extended the limit to four miles. The case was put before the International Court of Justice. Icelandic vessels were banned from landing fish in Britain. These events led to an acrimonious dispute between the British and Icelandic fishing industries and governments.
Britain was forced to concede the four-mile limit following a decision by the Organisation of European Economic Co-operation in 1956. In 1958, however, the United Nations (UN) held its first International Conference on the Law of the Sea. Various nations made claims for extending the limit of territorial waters to 12 miles, but nothing definite was decided. The Icelandic government unilaterally declared a 12-mile limit.
Britain did not recognise the Icelandic declaration and continued to fish within the new limit. This led to the first Cod War, in which Iceland's Navy harassed British trawlers. There was some violence, including 'rammings', and Royal Navy ships were deployed to protect the trawlers. Following the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea between 1960 and 1961, Britain agreed to the 12-mile limit.
Common Fisheries Policy
In 1970, the European Economic Community (EEC) drew up a Common Fisheries Policy, which allowed equal access to community waters by all community members after ten years. The industry considered that this was against their interests, but the Prime Minister Edward Heath was determined that this would not prevent Britain from joining.
Iceland, the 50-mile limit and the second Cod War
In September 1972, however, Iceland declared a 50-mile territorial limit. This resulted in the second Cod War, in which Icelanders used 'cutters' to sabotage the nets of British and German trawlers. The dispute assumed greater international significance because of American anxieties about the US/NATO base at Keflavik in Iceland, and the possibility of an Icelandic rapprochement with the USSR. In October 1973, UK and Icelandic representatives agreed that a limited number of British trawlers would be allowed to operate within the 12-limit for the following two years.
Iceland, the 200-mile limit and the third Cod War
In 1975, at a third United Nations (UN) Conference of the Law on the Sea, it became apparent many countries supported a 100-mile limit. In May 1975, Iceland declared a 200-mile limit. The British government refused to recognise this, and the result was the third Cod War. By the end of 1976, the British conceded this limit. The closure of these Icelandic grounds effectively ended British long-distance fishing.
The UK has a long history of fishing in Greenland waters for both fish and even whales – references to such activity goes back to at least the seventeenth century. This fishery became more important for British vessels (particularly those from Hull) in the early 1960s. Prior to this time, Hull-based vessels had fished in Greenland during the autumn and winter but with the decline in catches in Svalbard in the early 1960s, the Greenland fishery became more important during the summer months. In 1963, 40,000 tonnes of cod were landed from this area. This represented about 7% of the overall catch, up from around 3% in the 1920s. While the percentage share may be small, the tonnages were nonetheless huge and Hull vessels were a sustained presence before and after this time.
In 2017, the UK cod catch in Greenland waters was 1,756 tonnes.
The UK has fished in the waters of North Norway and Svalbard for decades. In 1961, Russia and Norway had the highest catches in Norwegian waters, followed by UK (at 158,113 tonnes). This was more than ten times that of France, the next highest EU country, and six times more than all other EU countries combined. Spain and Portugal had no recorded catches in Norwegian waters.
In 2017 the UK landed 8,316 tonnes of fish from the northern part of the Norwegian zone, a quota obtained through the EU-Norway fishing agreement.
The majority of the fish caught in northern Norwegian waters is cod, and most of that has its first sale in the UK.
The future of UK distant waters fishing is now threatened by the paucity of quotas available in North Norway, NAFO and Greenland. Total available cod quota in distant waters for 2022 stands at 7,000 tonnes compared with 19,500 tonnes in 2018. This puts the viability of vessels in danger and work for crews and associated staff as well as future investment in the Humberside region.