European Union governments agreed rules on Tuesday that could see Icelandic fishermen barred from EU ports, as part of a row over mackerel fishing that threatens to derail Iceland’s bid to join the 27-nation bloc.

The European Union is incensed at Iceland’s decision to cash in on an explosion in mackerel stocks in its waters by massively increasing its quotas, in a dispute that has drawn comparisons to the “cod wars” of the 1950s and 1970s.

In a move aimed at putting pressure on Iceland, EU ministers approved a law that allows the bloc to limit or ban imports of all fish from “third countries engaged in unsustainable practices in the management of fish resources they share with the EU”.

“This instrument could allow us to tackle situations like the one which is currently threatening the stock of northeast Atlantic mackerel,” the EU Council of Ministers said in a statement.

The European Union and Norway blame Iceland and the Faroe Islands for the failure to resolve the dispute, despite several rounds of negotiations between the four, which jointly manage the northeast Atlantic mackerel fishery.

Iceland increased its annual mackerel quota to 146,000 tonnes in 2011, compared with just 2,000 tonnes two years previously. Faroese catches increased six-fold over the same period to reach 150,000 tonnes last year.

With their distinctive iridescent colour, mackerel are prized for being rich in essential omega-3 oils, with more than 5 million tonnes landed by commercial fishermen globally in 2009.

Home to just 320,000 people but a major power in Atlantic fishing, Iceland’s quotas have brought it into conflict with fishermen from Scotland, Ireland and Norway, for whom mackerel is one of the most valuable stocks.

Iceland enjoyed a trade surplus in fish and fisheries products of nearly 900 million euros ($1.16 billion) with the EU in 2009, figures from the European Commission showed.

The Icelandic government says its increased quotas are justified by a sharp rise in mackerel stocks in its waters, after the fish began migrating further northwards as a result of warming seas.

EU officials have said the mackerel row could undermine Iceland’s application to join the European Union, which it made after the global financial crisis crushed its banking system and crippled its economy.

Thomson Reuters