Hull and Distant Water Fishing, Part Four: The Cod Wars

Before you set foot onto the deck of the Kingston Jet, the James Joyce, and the Arctic Kestrel Museum in our North American Premiere of Under the Whaleback, check out this five-part series by Dramaturg Walter Bilderback about the rich history, maritime culture, and world-wide impact of Cod Fishing.

In 1958, Iceland decided to protect their share of the declining cod stock by extending their territorial waters from 4 miles to 12. The British responded by sending warships to protect the trawler fleet. This first Cod War lasted until, when Britain accepted the 12 mile limit. (British trawlers continued to poach fish inside the limits whenever possible.) Things remained stable until 1972, when Iceland announced it was extending the waters to 100 miles from the coast. Since cod is a cold water fish that sticks to the continental shelf, this eliminated most of the Icelandic catch. Again, Iceland and Britain engaged in games with each other, including shots exchanged between warships. Again Britain gave in.

The end came after the third Cod War. This one started in 1975, when Iceland extended its waters to 200 miles. Norway joined Iceland, and eventually 200 miles became the international standard. All the distant water fishing grounds were now closed to the British. To worsen the sting for the Hull fishermen, Iceland is rumored to have offered a quota for British fishing close to what constituted a good season's catch, only to be rejected by Her Majesty's Government, including Hull's own MP, because of their demand for a quota that was impossible to fill.

When Iceland rejected this demand, the government abandoned the fishing industry. Between 1973 and 1976, two-thirds of Hull's wholesale fish merchants had closed shop. The shipowners also closed shop and moved away, after many of their records were apparently mysteriously lost in fires. At the same time, the deckies, skippers and mates discovered that they had legally been considered casual labor for their career, denying the bulk of them any unemployment benefits. The last sidewinder, the Arctic Corsair, made its last fishing trip in 1988. It wasn't until the 1990s that any sort of compensation began to be paid to the survivors.  By 2002, when the last act of Under the Whaleback is set, Hull had become a shadow of its former self. St. Andrews Dock was demolished and much of  Hessle Road was gone: the families of the deckies moved to newer developments, like North Hull Estates or Orchard Park, which were themselves being abandoned. 10,000 homes stood empty in this city of roughly a quarter million. (Rayners pub is still open, however.) The Arctic Corsair was restored around this time as a museum honoring this lost way of life, sitting almost alone except for a handful of big stern "freezers" (giant stern trawlers that catch and freeze fish on board the ship for sale across Europe) in what was once a fishing town.

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