Earth’s largest expanse is a parallel world, lawless and largely invisible, where crime and exploitation rage unchecked, a new book reports.
In “The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys across the last untamed frontier,” investigative journalist Ian Urbina uncovers slavery, overfishing and human trafficking on the high seas.
The effects of these crimes touch nearly everyone on the planet, destroying marine life, undermining food security and driving social instability and poverty.
In a recent conversation with Conservation International CEO M. Sanjayan, Urbina discussed the moments that troubled him most during his years out on the ocean — and why there is still hope.
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Urbina spent 40 months on boats traveling 12,000 nautical miles across 14 countries, encountering some of the most flagrant — and unreported — environmental and human rights abuses across the high seas.
On a transnational ship more than 160 km (100 miles) off the coast of Thailand, Urbina witnessed firsthand the horrifying, rat-infested conditions that impoverished fishermen were being forced to endure as they were held captive at sea, far out of reach from any government authorities.
At the core of these abuses is the simple truth that no one is clear on who owns what in the ocean — which means, ultimately, that no one is responsible.
“To me, the problem is an out-of-sight, out-of-mind reality that results in an utter lack of governance in a sprawling space that has for too long simply been thought of as a space — rarely a workplace,” Urbina said. “There is a long cultural and intellectual history behind thinking of the sea and maritime as another world where things are different.”
In international waters, the ocean isn’t legally owned or monitored by any government. Boat captains striving to meet the increasing demand for seafood, for example, can essentially practice slave labor with impunity. To supplement their poor — or non-existent — wages, many disenfranchised fishers turn to illegal practices such as shark finning.
Urbina’s book crystallizes just how entangled human rights abuses and environmental abuses — overfishing, illegal fishing, toxic waste dumping — are in maritime industries.
Echoing the “not-my-problem” approach that individual countries have often taken to lawbreaking out on the water, efforts to reform the fishing industry have largely been split, with environmental organizations addressing issues related to sustainability, ocean health, marine habitats — and social welfare organizations addressing human rights problems.
Only recently has there been broader recognition that environmental problems and social problems on the high seas are two sides of the same coin.
In 2017, Jack Kittinger, a marine expert in Conservation International’s Hawai’i office, conceived a new approach for addressing both at the same time. Working with partners, Kittinger developed a “social responsibility” framework for the seafood industry that offers concrete recommendations to players at every point in the seafood supply chain to ensure that social responsibility is enforced at every level — from the businesses buying the fish to the governments regulating the marine resources powering the industry.
The framework is at the forefront of new approaches to fight crimes on the high seas. A proposed international treaty, now under negotiation, aims to protect marine life in international waters — though questions remain as to enforcement.
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What Urbina’s book makes crystal-clear is the colossal scale of illegal activity in international waters.
“Even for someone who spent their entire lives in conservation... [this book] was a revelation to me,” said Sanjayan, noting that while there have been strides in making the sustainability of seafood more transparent, consumers still know next to nothing about the living and working conditions of the people who caught that seafood.
In a “lawless” ocean, how do you even begin to monitor what’s happening, let alone punish abuses and protect the voiceless workers trapped on ships?
“[These boats] moving through a place that no one governs, that have a ship flag to one country, captain from another country, manned by a crew from a different country in international waters and dropping on their cargo in fourth country: It is not easy [to track],” Urbina said.
“But it is utterly feasible. There are already movements afoot.”
Watch the entire interview here.
Kiley Price is a staff writer for Conservation International.
Cover image: A fisherman opens his net during the early morning hours in the fishing village of Robertsport, located on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. (© Michael Christopher Brown)
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