Book review – The Outlaw Ocean: Crime and Survival in the Last Untamed Frontier

7-minute read

I thought I knew of the horrors to be found on the open ocean.

I was wrong.

New York Times investigative reporter Ian Urbina has spent five years, three of which at sea, documenting the stories told here. What began as an award-winning series of articles has now been turned into a book by the same name: The Outlaw Ocean. In turns nail-biting and gut-wrenching, this brutal reportage shows the open ocean to be a dystopian place of crime and exploitation that is hiding in plain sight.

The Outlaw Ocean

The Outlaw Ocean: Crime and Survival in the Last Untamed Frontier, written by Ian Urbina, published in Europe by The Bodley Head (a Vintage imprint) in September 2019 (hardback, 544 pages)

On land, it is relatively hard to escape law and order. Not so on the high seas. Outside of territorial seas (everything within 12 nautical miles of a country’s coastline) and exclusive economic zones (everything within 200 nautical miles), a vast swathe of the globe is liquid no man’s land: the high seas, waters that fall outside of anyone’s jurisdiction and that are effectively a marine wild west. (According to the Ocean Health Index, we are talking about 64% of the ocean’s surface and 95% of its volume). The lack of oversight and law enforcement, plus the sheer size and impossibility of patrolling the oceans, allow a rainbow of crimes to flourish.

Urbina opens and closes the book accompanying vigilante conservationist group Sea Shepherd. Not shying away from direct action at sea to frustrate ships that are fishing in off-limit zones or whaling, this organisation regularly makes headlines. They have a “flexible” approach to the law, quipping that “it takes a pirate to catch a pirate”. It seems they have realised they need allies, so nowadays they are cooperating with Interpol. An anonymous source there mentions to Urbina that “they’re getting results”, leading Interpol to turn a blind eye to Sea Shepherd’s transgressions. I find it hard not to come away feeling supportive of their efforts. Urbina joins them for part of their pursuit of the highly wanted fishing vessel Thunder, and later during an anti-whaling campaign.

I came away with a similar positive feeling from the chapter that reports on the renegade Dutch doctor-activist Rebecca Gomperts. Her initiative Women on Waves offers abortions to women worldwide by sailing them into international waters and offering them abortion pills. These people are breaking and bending rules, yes, but the means justify the ends. However, when anti-whaling and pro-abortion efforts are the most cheerful topics you can muster, you know you are in for grim reading.

“[…] when anti-whaling and pro-abortion efforts are the most cheerful topics you can muster, you know you are in for grim reading”

A large part of Urbina’s reporting deals with the fishing industry. In other reviews, I have already dealt with the history of overfishing and its its consequences. Urbina documents the destruction wrought by trawling, by-catch and other questionable practices such as the reduction industry, but also the side often ignored by environmentalists: the human cost.

Many of these ships use intermediate manning agencies to press-gang poor men into barbaric working conditions. Urbina investigates in Palau, New Zealand, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Somalia, to name but some of the hotspots. What he uncovers is nothing short of slavery: 20-hour workdays, 7-day work weeks, withheld salaries, frequent beatings, intimidation, rape, even murder. No, slavery was not abolished, it just moved offshore.

Urbina alternates his reporting on these human rights abuses with other, “lighter” topics, some rather bizarre. Take the self-proclaimed micro-nation Sealand off the British coast. Or repo man (short for repossession) Max Hardberger who, by cunning rather than force, steals stolen vessels and returns them to their owners. Others are deeply troubling: the dumping of waste by luxury cruise ships, the fate of stowaways, oil companies covering up the existence of fragile coral reefs in areas targeted for oil drilling, the limbo of crew members stranded on bankrupt vessels.

“No, slavery was not abolished, it just moved offshore.”

Although it makes for a bit of a wandering narrative, I think it is a good move. I admit not necessarily having a high opinion of the human species, but there is only so much despair, violence, and misery that I can endure. The sheer visceral intensity of Urbina’s reporting was such that it brought me close to tears on several occasions, which happens rarely. Whether the high seas bring out the worst in man, or whether they attract the worst kind of man, The Outlaw Ocean offers an unflinching look at some of the most depraved excesses of human cruelty. The dystopic drudgery on display here is near-Orwellian: “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.

Part of what allows this inhumane treatment to continue are the many byzantine maritime laws, which, Urbina observes, protect a ship’s cargo more than its crew. Especially the practice of flags of convenience, whereby a company in country A can register their ship in country B, has encouraged companies to shop around for countries with minimal regulation and oversight. Add manning agencies in country C recruiting people from country D, and fishing companies are answerable to no one. As a spokesperson of a migrant advocacy group in Singapore observes: “That’s exactly how this business is designed“.

“[…] there is only so much despair, violence, and misery that I can endure. The sheer visceral intensity of Urbina’s reporting was such that it brought me close to tears on several occasions”

Sure, corrupt port authorities and inspectors are being bribed to look the other way, but we would do well to remember that we are all in on this. One of Urbina’s most incisive passages is worth quoting at length:

manning agencies […] provide the efficiencies that fishing companies need to hold up a fantasy that consumers around the world desperately want to believe […] that it is possible to fish sustainably, legally, and using workers with contracts, making a livable wage, and still deliver a five-ounce can of skipjack tuna for $2.50 that ends up on the grocery shelf only days after the fish was pulled from the water thousands of miles away.” (p. 192)

As long as we continue to feel entitled to the lowest prices, we are turning a blind eye to labour abuses, whether in sweat-shops, Amazon warehouses, iPhone production lines, or fishing vessels. “Such is the inconvenient truth of globalization […] more a market sleight of hand than […] Adam Smith’s invisible hand“. I was hoping Urbina would return to this in his appendix where he recommends what readers can do and what organisations they can support, but was disappointed to see he refrains from further reflective condemnation.

“fishing companies are answerable to no one […] “That’s exactly how this business is designed“.”

The reporting in this book is top-notch, and I was not surprised to read that the original article series received seven major awards. Clearly, Urbina can call on deep pockets and influential contacts around the globe, not to mention an unhealthy dose of persistence and courage, to get him into locations and near people you would normally actively avoid. More than once, he puts his life on the line and finds himself in rapidly escalating situations. However, I never got the feeling that he is driven by bravado, more by an unquenchable urge to uncover injustice. His concern is more with witnesses, fixers, translators, or photographers close to him than with his own safety. Even so, some of the encounters described here made my pulse race.

The Outlaw Ocean is an exceptional reportage that encompasses almost every conceivable form of misconduct playing out on the high seas. I found the book impossible to put down. Shocking, urgent, and gut-wrenching in places, it left a deep and lasting impression on me.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

Urbina’s The Outlaw Ocean paperback, hardback, ebook, audiobook or audio CD

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:




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