The Outlaw Ocean

Recommendation: Yes, absolutely but it may ruin everything just a little bit

Where to read: This feels like a serious read for a rainy weekend

Read with: The Prohibition-era and extremely appropriate Scofflaw cocktail

In brief: If you ever imagined you could buy a $2 can of tuna from a supermarket without either or both slave labour or poaching, this may cause you (and me) to re-evaluate.

The Outlaw Ocean is built from a series of of pieces Urbina reported for the New York Times over a couple of years, some of which are still available and are well worth reading if you want to get a sense of the book:

Given that this is, in many respects, a collection of independent essays, organisation is everything. Opening with Sea Shepherd’s 2014 pursuit of the Thunder, a notorious Interpol-listed poaching vessel, is a brilliant tactical choice – it blew my mind and had me hooked from the start. This is critical because it then launches straight into some deeply depressing and quite confronting reporting on “modern” slavery in the fishing industry and the horrendous environmental practices of, well, everyone.

Disturbing as the material is, these two themes are the key pillars in Urbina’s broader point, which is that in the absence of states to take responsibility for law and law enforcement, the open ocean is the closest humanity gets to utter lawlessness (in a very Hobbesian sense). It is also, and this is where Urbina comes in, beyond the imagination or interest of almost everyone almost all of the time. Sure, the occasional story manages to capture the public imagination (think Somali pirates or dolphin safe tuna) but the ocean is, for the most part, a vast blank. And in the absence of law or public attention, both people and the environment are acutely vulnerable to abuse.

On labour abuses, Urbina looks at:

  • the Thai fishing fleet which systematically enslaves young men and boys from Cambodia and Myanmar through tactics like debt bondage, confiscating documents and never allowing them off vessels. In a compounding tragedy, one of the ways debt bondage is created is by encouraging them to “patronise” (rape) women and girls who are themselves victims of sex trafficking. Once offshore, these men are often starved, beaten, raped, forced to work in horrendously unsafe conditions for years at a time and sometimes murdered by their captains or officers;
  • the abuse of Filipino, Indian, Mauritian, Indonesian and Tanzanian workers in the Taiwanese fleet (with precisely the same consequences as above);
  • a couple of appalling incidents involving South Korean owned vessels, one of which sank because the captain overfilled the net and then refused to cut it loose in dangerous seas;
  • the less dire but still completely unacceptable position of sailors in the cargo and transport industries, who can be stuck on vessels for months or years for a lack of visas and paperwork at ports; and
  • the systematic underpayment of workers on cruise ships.

All of the above industries and fleets also have, unsurprisingly, horrendous environmental records. Over-fishing and poaching is endemic (as many as one in three pieces of fish served to consumers were illegally caught) and many contemporary fishing practices are criminally destructive. Bottom trawling, for example, tears up the sea bed entirely, leaving wasteland behind:

Forces joined in battle against bottom trawling - NZ Herald

The “dolphin-safe tuna” campaign succeeded (for the most part) but fishing fleets switched to using FADs (fish aggregating devices) which actually increases bycatch across a wider range of (likely vulnerable) species. Cruise liners and cargo vessels dump ballast water, sewerage and fuel into the ocean on a regular basis and the ocean is used every day as a general garbage disposal system (from the practice of scuttling old vessels and oil platforms to the dumping waste). The general vandalism, as you might imagine, is far more extensive than covered either in this review or in the book.

Some of the information here might be unsurprising, but this is one of those reads that changes the way you see something in the world. It is painful, frequently confronting and probably uncomfortable given our complicity in all of this but all the more valuable for that.

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