Investigative journalist chronicles the lawless high seas

The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys across the last untamed frontierIn his new book “The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys across the last untamed frontier”, investigative journalist Ian Urbina writes about the proliference of slavery, overfishing and human trafficking on the high seas.

In many ways, international waters is a parallel world that nations and their laws don´t really reach. It is a place where crime against and exploitation of both humans and the environment is largely left to continue unchecked.

“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 space — rarely a workplace,” says Urbina. “There is a long cultural and intellectual history behind thinking of the sea and maritime as another world where things are different.”

To research for his book, Urbina spent a total of 40 months on boats, travelling 12,000 nautical miles. Among other things, he witnessed the rat-infested living conditions of fishermen on a transnational ship some 160 km off the coast of Thailand.

Even for those of us who are already aware of the existence of illegal activity in international waters, Urbina´s book can serve as an eye-opener since it is very good at painting a clear picture that shows us the colossal scale of these activities.

A broader approach is required

International waters aren´t legally owned or governed by any country, and horrific abuses can largely be committed with impunity.

In his book, Urbina clearly shows how entangled the human rights abuses are with abuses of the environment – such as overfishing, illegal fishing, shark finning and the dumping of toxic waste.

The fight against these various issues has so far been largely split between environmental organisations (focused on issues such as sustainability and the protection of marine habitats) and social welfare organisations addressing human rights problems (such as forced labour, debt-slavery, physical abuse, and sexual abuse).

Urbina´s book is one of several voices that, during the last few years, have urged us to take on a broader approach and see how these two fields are closely connected to each other.

One of these voices belongs to Jack Kittinger, a marine expert working for the Conservation International, who – in collaboration with partners – has developed a social responsibility framework for the seafood industry. This framework, published in 2017, consists of concrete and actionable recommendations for every point in the seafood supply chain.

Urbina´s book also makes it clear that governments must become better at working together.

“[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],” says Urbina. “But it is utterly feasible. There are already movements afoot.”