Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Ian Urbina spent five years exploring lawlessness on the high seas. In his new book, The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier, Ian uncovers a globe-spanning network of crime and exploitation, emanating from the fishing, oil and shipping industries, upon which the world’s economies rely. Based in Washington, DC, Ian is collaborating with Ocean Wise Conservation Association on a talk at the Vancouver Aquarium on January 22.
What is The Outlaw Ocean Project?
The Outlaw Ocean is a journalistic exploration of lawlessness at sea. The project’s goal is to increase a sense of urgency by raising awareness and broadening the public’s understanding of what happens at sea, both above and below the waterline. This reporting touches on a diversity of abuses ranging from illegal and overfishing, arms trafficking at sea, human slavery, gun running, intentional dumping, murder of stowaways, thievery of ships and other topics. In my time as an investigative journalist, I’ve never done more daunting reporting or witnessed a more urgent need for it.
How do maritime abuses such as human slavery and arms trafficking intersect with ocean conservation?
All of these abuses, whether they’re human rights abuses, or environmental crimes, stem from a core problem – a lack of governance on the high seas. Specifically, there are three ways in which misbehavior happens offshore: too few rules, a lack of enforcement, and insufficient awareness of what is happening there. All these problems are also connected in the sense that they occur with a certain tacit complicity from all of us who live on land. We all are the beneficiaries of the lawlessness on the high seas, where 90% of all the products we consume come by way of ships.
What are some examples of the interplay between human rights and environmental abuses?
Consider, for one example, shark finning, which is banned in more than a dozen countries, but ship captains on tuna longliners often allow their crew to offset poverty wages by cutting off shark fins and selling them at port. A fleet of South Korean trawlers that I cover in the book was notorious not only for sexual assault, forced labor, squalid living conditions, but also for engaging in a type of illegal fishing called high grading, which entails gaming the catch quota system by tossing old catch overboard so as to save and register newer fresher catch.
What have you learned about the problem of overfishing?
There are two types of overfishing occurring out there. There is licensed fishing, in industrial boats, usually off the coast of fairly poor countries that are desperate for revenue. Those countries tend to provide industrial fishing boats with licenses and very little oversight or controls on what is caught or how. This type of industrial fishing is pulling more marine life out of the water than is sustainable.
The second category of overfishing occurs at the hands of smaller non-industrial boats which are typically owned and captained by relatively poor and desperate people who are less concerned with, or aware of, the big picture. That big picture refers to the fact that the seas globally are running out of fish. These people are more focused on making ends meet in their own lives. The public awareness of the need to protect ocean health generally concedes to the broader need for survival and income.
What should governments be doing to combat these problems?
If countries were serious about combating human rights, labor and environmental abuses at sea, they would step up legal protections, at-sea patrols, and most especially, inspections when ships dock. Some initial steps include the following. They would mandate that vessels keep their locational transponders on at all times so that police, companies and consumers could monitor them. Any time ships arrived at port they would have to document basic things like what workers are on board, where they are from, what fish had been caught, where and how. There needs to be more rules, more demand for these rules, more proactive enforcement of those rules and more awareness of what is happening out there in our communities.
What progress have you seen on ocean issues in recent years?
I’ve seen many dedicated and passionate people focused on finding the answers to the ocean’s most disturbing problems. In the North Atlantic, I joined the longest law-enforcement chase in nautical history. A vigilante conservation group called Sea Shepherd was attempting what no government had been willing to do. That is, these advocates were trying to stop a ship that, for nearly a decade, had fished illegally, and largely unobstructed, in Antarctic waters, profiting to the tune of more than $67 million.
Tell us about one of the memorable people you met during your reporting?
One of the most memorable people was David George Mndolwa. In May 2011, David George Mndolwa, and his friend Jocktan Francis Kobelo, both Tanzanians, snuck aboard a 370-foot cargo ship in Cape Town. Upon finding the Tanzanian stowaways, the crew built a rickety raft made of empty oil drums and a wooden tabletop. Wielding a knife, the crewman ordered Mndolwa and Kobelo, neither of whom knew how to swim, over the railing and onto the raft. After days of storms and trying to stay alive, they experienced an extraordinary stroke of luck which saw the rafted stowaways deposited at a pier several miles outside the port city of Buchanan, Liberia. Asked why he had stowed away aboard the cargo ship, Mndolwa simply said, “I wanted a new life.” Mndolwa described a meager existence in Cape Town, roaming the sidewalks near South Africa’s Table Bay selling knockoff watches and soccer jerseys during the day and sleeping in a makeshift lean-to under a bridge at night. His tenuous existence helped explain the risks he was willing to take to stow away. In the two years after my New York Times story about him was published in 2015, he stowed away from Cape Town three more times, ending up twice in Senegal and once in Madagascar. He told me that each time captains discovered him on board, the shipowners paid him $1,000 to get off their vessels. This sum was enough to keep him afloat for half a year, he added. Each time, Mndolwa then made his way back to his destitute life in the shantytown alongside the Cape Town port, hoping to launch anew.