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Ian Urbina’s “The Outlaw Ocean”

Ian Urbina’s “The Outlaw Ocean”

by William H. Benson

October 17, 2019

     A month ago, I read a new book, fascinating and eye-opening, entitled, The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier.

     It’s author, Ian Urbina, first explains in his “Introduction,” that he quit writing his dissertation in history at the University of Chicago in 2003, to take a job as a journalist at the New York Times.

     There, at the Times he said, he “learned how to be a reporter.” Often, his supervisors cautioned him, “Tell stories, don’t write articles.”

     In 2014, he pitched an idea for a series of articles to his editor then, Rebecca Corbett, about the rampant lawlessness that exists on the high seas. She “nudged him toward a focus more on the people than on the fish, delving more into human rights and labor concerns,” than on environmental issues.

     Urbina’s first article appeared in the Times in July of 2015, and “another dozen or so pieces” followed. In January of 2017, he departed the Times to expand his articles into a book.

     Each of his fifteen chapters stands alone. He said, “I organized the chapters as a series of essays, confident that readers would connect the dots.”

     In the “Introduction,” he reveals the numbers of workers required to meet the world’s growing appetite for ocean fish, and also to move freight. “Over 56 million people globally work at sea on fishing boats, and another 1.6 million work on freighters, tankers, and other types of merchant vessels.”

     Yet, once those workers sail away from the shore, they leave the security of land’s rules and laws. “For all its breathtaking beauty, the ocean is also a dystopian place, home to dark inhumanities. The rule of law, so solid on land, is fluid at sea, if it’s to be found at all.”

     He says, “There is no shortage of laws governing the seas. The real problem is lax enforcement.” As a result, “one of every five fish that ends up on a dinner plate is caught illegally.”

     In Chapter 1, Urbina describes how a single ship, the Bob Barker, that belonged to “Sea Shepard,” an organization founded to halt illegal fishing, pursued a single Nigerian fishing vessel, the Thunder, “across more than 11,550 nautical miles, three oceans, and two seas,” for 110 days in early 2015, until the Thunder‘s captain scuttled the ship and caused it to sink.

     What was the crew’s crime? Poaching tooth-fish in the cold waters south of Chile. A marketing expert renamed the fish, once caught, “Chilean Sea Bass,” and people loved to eat it.    

     In Chapter 5, Urbina tells of Rebecca Gomperts, a Dutch doctor, who “sails the world in a sloop,” offering safe abortions near countries where laws make them illegal. She will position her ship more than twelve miles offshore, safe in international waters. 

     Gomperts’s sloop flies Austria’s flag, where abortions are legal, but the women who seek her help live in Guatemala, Ireland, Poland, and Morocco, places where lawmakers have criminalized abortions.

Urbina writes, “Few people are as adept at capitalizing on such loopholes in maritime law as Rebecca.”

     In Chapter 6, Urbina describes the methods that Thailand’s fishing captains resort to in order to entice sufficient numbers of laborers to work on their vessels. They offer loans to Cambodian men to pay for their transport to Thailand, by promising them “work in construction in Thailand.”

     But the captains fail to tell the Cambodians that they will work at sea, that the job lasts for months at a time, and that they will not ever earn enough to pay off their loan. Soon, the Cambodians realize they are stuck in bondage, imprisoned at sea, and “trapped in a cycle of debt slavery.”

     Urbina writes, “Slavery is a harsh reality, but this sort of bondage is a global blindspot, because governments, companies, and consumers either do not know it occurs, or, when they do, prefer to look the other way.”

     Urbina describes the brutality on board a Thai fishing vessel. “Crew members are routinely threatened and beaten, or even executed.” The fishing captains “lock workers behind chained doors for weeks or months, with little freshwater or food, or work them eighteen hours a day hauling in fish.”

Thomas Hobbes, the English philosopher, wrote in his poem, Leviathan, that life outside of society would become “solitary, poor, nasty, and brutish.” On a ship, far from shore, “our darkest impulses emerge,” despite “our most noble intentions, to establish a fair and just rule of law. Neither has any chance against the power of the outlaw ocean.”