The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier – Interview with Ian Urbina

Two-thirds of our world’s oceans fall outside any country’s jurisdiction: the High Seas. For his investigations of crime and abuse in this area of lawlessness, Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times journalist and author Ian Urbina travelled across the seas from the Southern Ocean to Somalia, resulting in five long years of dangerous endeavours.

His book “The Outlaw Ocean” is a collection of stories from his investigations, personal experiences and interviews with people involved. It reveals the vacuum of law on the High Seas to the public eye and vividly describes what’s really going on far away from coastal borders and coastal guards. He writes about piracy and smuggling, informs about enslaved crews and murder, documents intentional oil dumping and illegal fishing.

It’s a real eye-opener, and it almost feels like this book is a little window into a parallel world. While “The Outlaw Ocean” describes the horrendous human actions in the absence of law and order, it also discusses the difficulties in addressing these problems.

As Bracenet is endlessly working to protect the oceans from ghost nets and all of these problems at the High Seas are interconnected, we were eager to learn more. We were lucky to have the chance to talk with Ian Urbina about his book, ghost nets, and his personal opinion on the lawlessness between the waves. Enjoy the interview!

What was your most formative experience during your research?

In a 15 chapter book it’s hard to choose which one was most evocative and illustrative. I think I might choose two. First: the chase of the “Thunder”. This story is about these vigilante ocean conservationists, namely Sea Shepherd, who set out to find the world’s most wanted and most illegal fishing vessel and chase it. This is a chase that lasted 110 days and ran from the Antarctic all the way up to the coast of Africa. The book is called “The Outlaw Ocean”, not “The Illegal Ocean”, because a lot of what happens out there is outside the law. That one was certainly really illustrative, and distinct, and shocking.

Second: sea slavery. Reporting about the problem of captive, trafficked, debt bonded, and sometimes even kidnapped workers who get put on fishing vessels and are sometimes kept at sea for two, three years. There is slavery even to the degree of people being shackled. The pervasiveness of sea slavery and the just incredible abuse that happens in that situation around the world, that also is just mind-boggling and caught me by surprise to see how intense it was.

Would you say that we in our continental living have falsified information about the lawlessness on the High Seas or do we just not have all the information?

The problem is a lack of it. There’s very little requirement by the fishing industry to report their activities. It’s not even illegal for them to turn off their transponder and go completely invisible. So there’s just very little tracking once you get to the High Seas. 

From the public opinion point of view, which in some ways is even more fundamental, there’s very very little journalism coming out of this space because it’s extremely expensive and difficult and time-consuming. There are 56 million people who work at High Seas, but almost nobody talks about them.

Would you say that it is different within the 200 miles area? Is there more information and more journalism about lawlessness and crime?

Not a lot, honestly. There are some stories, especially in the local press, about local fishermen. There are very few newspapers, or radios, or TVs that have a dedicated ocean reporter. So there are reporters who visit fishermen occasionally, but they don’t stay in it. But this is a tribe that you have to stay in for a long time, to win their trust to really know what’s going on. We hear about plastic pollution, we sometimes hear about ghost nets, we hear about rising sea levels, we hear about overfishing but you really don’t hear other types of stories like intentional dumping of arms, human slavery, illegal fishing, illegal whaling, stealing of ships.Those are stories that you really have to work deep and long for.

Ian Urbina on a boat with an armed soldier in Somalia

You rarely hear about stories where somebody is clearly accountable. In your opinion, who’s in the position to change that? Who is maybe also responsible  that this is not possible yet?

You work on ghost nets and do really important work and it’s important to have your listeners and the public. The offshore space that covers two-thirds of the planet is a sort of distant frontier that’s hard to access. It’s all pretty invisible. It’s not just about the rogue obscure bad actors. It’s also a lot about big players, because they know they can get away with it if they cut their nets. No one is going to notice until much later, when for example Ghost Diving or researchers see them.

Who’s in a position to change? Well, everyone!

Consumers, people who buy seafood need to inform themselves about these issues, and then begin asking questions to the people who sell the fish they buy. Those sellers have to ask questions as well. How can we be sure that this stuff was caught in an appropriate way? What does your supply chain look like? Governments also have to act in terms of setting laws and also budgeting enforcement and inspections to figure out whose nets those are and how to hold people accountable. That just takes money and political will. Taxpayers, lawmakers, lawyers, NGOs, Bloggers, and companies like yours, and journalists like me have to keep the pressure on.

In your book, you describe that there is no concept of checks and balances on the High Seas. Would you say that if there were checks and balances it would lead to an improvement concerning crimes?

  I’m personally skeptical that governments alone, or even at the forefront, can solve this. These are international waters, they belong to no one and everyone. So which government or collection of governments even have the authority? My personal sense is that it will play a role, but probably in passing laws that put pressure on companies. The laws will require companies to have more accountability in their supply chain. I don’t imagine it as a High Seas police force. I do imagine each country pushing laws that tell the market, tell corporate players that they can’t sell their goods unless they comply with certain standards. They should not be allowed anymore to take this fish unless they provide a really clear documentation of chain of custody. 

If a ship leaves Tokyo and heads to LA, for example, and it has registered its gear and it’s got seven huge mile-long nets. It arrives in LA with a whole bunch of fish and it has got only four miles of nets. Well, where are the other nets? This is not rocket science from a regulatory point of view. There has to be political will to impose really strict conditions on the players who are operating the space.

The stories you describe are mostly located in Asia or around Africa, but you also describe some cases around Europe. Would you say there is an enormous difference between the crimes you encounter and you encountered in European waters?

Yes and no. I haven’t spent the amount of time that one would need to in European waters to make an informed answer of that. I generally think that the countries that are poorer tend to have the more acute abuses in their waters, not because the people are by character different, but because the desperation is more intense. Overfishing, illegal fishing, intentional dumping of oil, the discarding of nets are surely crimes that I imagine to exist also in European waters. But murder, human slavery, arms trafficking, I think that these sorts of crimes do occur in European waters, but not as frequently as the places that I focus on: Latin America, Africa, Asia.

What are you curious about right now, what are you maybe waiting for as a new convention or new law? Is there anything in the pipe you expect to happen in the near future?

There’s an interesting thing happening at the UN, it’s often referred to as the “High Seas Diversity Treaty”. It’s been this long process, almost a decade now, where various representatives from various countries and various industries have been trying to figure out how to better manage international waters, and how to deal with certain questions that had never been answered before. Such as, if certain players wanted to create a marine protected area (MPA) as a method of countering climate change and slowing ocean depletion, who is allowed to do that? Who gives the permission to create that MPA? Who enforces it, what are the penalties if someone violates it? Since this is a public space, right? MPAs are one of the most promising trends in ocean conservation right now. The diversity treaty is looking at other things as well: Who should decide how much fish can be taken from the High Seas, and how many fishing vessels should be there?  

Did you personally see ghost nets on the fishing boats and people cutting off the nets?

The only encounter I had was in the story that is in the beginning of the book about the chase of the “Thunder”. And those were not ghost nets per se. Those were nets that were part of illegal fishing that the Sea Shepherd ocean advocates confiscated. They cut the nets loose from this illegal vessel called the “Thunder”, and they took it on board as evidence of the crimes. It caused all sorts of conflict and the “Thunder” became very aggressive and angry that their nets were being confiscated, stolen in their view. 

Ian Urbian in front of a fishing vessel

Can you explain a bit more why there is a connection between illegal fishing and ghost nets?

If you’re a legal lawful fishing vessel, then you’re likely going to have to keep track of your gear. You have to actually have clean books. If you’re a captain of an illegal vessel, you can use trapped labor because no one’s checking, and your crew can disappear halfway on your voyage because no one’s going to ask you why you’re missing two guys. And you can also, if it’s cheaper, cut your net loose and just let it go rather than spend an entire day of unplugging it. Time and space are fundamental. If your net is in a situation that might delay you a certain amount of time, time equals fuel. And it is also one thing that people don’t know on land that the window of time, when you can drop off your catch, is often very limited.

One thing that’s important for people to think about is: there’s a wider variety of abuses and crimes happening at sea than most people realize. The concerns out there are really diverse and acute. They’re connected to each other because they typically coexist and feed off each other. Illegal fishing connects to sea slavery, and sea slavery connects to ghost nets.

Do you think that businesses like ours that address topics like plastic pollution, radical fishing or in general plastic waste can solve these problems? 

Yes, the only thing I would tweak is I don’t believe in the word “solve” or “fix” or “arrive”. The best we should ever hope for is a constant nearing but never arriving, because I don’t think you ever truly solve these things. The only way we will get extremely close to arriving is if we have lots of different responses. 

So we have start-ups, lots of organizations like yours that are on a grassroots, and organic, and localized level changing one part of the equation. While at the same time there are other stakeholders which are also pushing these issues on their fronts: lawyers, unions that are representing the fishing workers not just for human rights but also to protect them when they report a ghost net on the ship where they were working. Everyone has a role to play as a donor, as a parent, as a spouse, as a taxpayer, as a professional, as an artist. So, I do believe all of these players are going to be needed. But quite especially companies like yours are trying to redirect how the products (the ghost nets) get used. That’s great.

Do you still eat seafood? We can imagine that during your research offshore you didn’t really have the choice. 

I stopped eating meat and seafood many years ago, mostly as an experiment to see whether I could do it. I was an athlete and I also thought that the land and water use and the politics of meat and seafood worried me. This was two decades ago. So I don’t eat seafood or meat now. But If I’m a guest at someone’s house or I’m, most importantly, on a ship and reporting, I always eat what’s put in front of me, no matter what it is – and I quite enjoy it.

Do you still travel on the oceans for private vacations after all the things you’ve seen?  

Without a doubt. I have even more love for that space and I’m even more addicted to its beauty, and its power, and its mystery than I was before. I didn’t grow up sailing. I’ve never been on a cruise ship. I don’t tend to vacation on the water in that way. I do always prefer if I’m going to take a vacation, to be at the ocean’s edge. I love the ocean, and I very much love island cultures especially. Whenever I go out on the reporting trips and I’m at sea on these vessels, I feel a certain, almost existential bond with the feeling out there far from shore. In the last seven or eight years I’ve become quite distinctly addicted to that certain type of tranquility that comes with leaving shore for long periods of time. It’s like space travel in a weird way.

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Many of our team have read or are currently reading “The Outlaw Ocean”. We think it should be a must-read for everyone who cares about our oceans. You can learn more about the The Outlaw Ocean project here.

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