The Outlaw Ocean: a cinematic voyage following criminals at sea

There is no lack of danger in Ian Urbina’s high sea travels; impressively, he never shies away from it.

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In late 2013, a fishing resupply vessel pulled up alongside a trawler in the South China Sea. The supply boat carried a worker named Som Nang on his first voyage, who looked over at the trawler with profound shock. On its deck he could see a man who was shackled by the neck and chained to a post. The man was Lang Long. He had been sold for less than the price of a water buffalo and his freedom was later bought by the Catholic seafarers’ welfare charity Stella Maris for $750. He had been chained on and off for nine months by the captain, for insubordination.

This may be the only physical shackle in Ian Urbina’s book, but there are plenty of other shocks. There are the indentured Cambodians on fishing vessels off Somalia and the children sold for sex in Thai “karaoke bars”, where poor fishermen are also kept so they can run up huge bills and be trafficked on to fishing vessels. There are the rapacious and unscrupulous fishers who fuel an illicit seafood trade that, says Urbina, creates $160bn in annual sales (although he also says elsewhere the global black market for seafood is worth $20bn). Whatever the figure, it is too much. If you want to set forth with Urbina to explore the lawlessness of the ocean, you must be prepared for vastness and depths of all sorts.

The book starts as it means to go on, with drama (the film rights have already been optioned) and the cinematic chase of a “scofflaw” trawler called the Thunder, in what is described as “the longest pursuit of an illegal fishing vessel in nautical history”. It is the first of several chases by hunters that include the marine conservation organisation Sea Shepherd – a group of ocean vigilantes in the view of some – Thai, Indonesian and Palauan government patrols; and Greenpeace, which goes after whalers. The vigilantes are needed because of blatantly criminal trawlers such as the Thunder. It is a gill-netter, using outlawed nets that create a mesh wall that can stretch several miles across and 20 feet high. Thunder’s net was a monstrous 45 miles long. That is not fishing, it is ravaging.

Today, says Urbina, “half of the global catch is now tossed overboard dead, or it is ground up and pelletised to feed pigs, poultry and farmed fish”. Perhaps this leaves you numb, so look instead at your plate: one in five fish served up is caught through illegal fishing, by boats operating where they shouldn’t, catching what they shouldn’t, treating their crews as no-one should.

Sea Shepherd exists because a high seas police force does not. Twelve miles out from the coastline, a nation’s sovereignty stops and the mare liberum, the freedom of the high seas, begins. A nation has economic rights, though, over a 200-nautical-mile “exclusive economic zone”, so Palau, a tiny Pacific nation state attempting to crack down on illegal fishing, has a landmass the size of New York but rights over waters the size of Texas. Those waters include sharks that, alive, are each “worth over $170,000 annually in tourism dollars, or nearly $2m over [their] lifetime”, says Palau’s president. Dead, a shark sells for $100, and the money goes to a foreign poacher. Ripped of their fins, used for medicine and banquets, the sharks are thrown back into the sea to die a slow death because they can no longer swim. This squeezes my heart, but it may not do the same for everyone else: ocean creatures are not cuddly. It is hard to trigger public anger over the abuses of fish or of fishers. The fish are alien, and so are the fishers – young men always from elsewhere.

Still, Urbina makes efforts to change that, and such efforts. His research involved “85 planes, 40 cities, every continent, over 12,000 nautical miles across all five oceans and 20 other seas”. His gaze takes in a lot, including the work of Dr Rebecca Gomperts, who provides a floating abortion clinic that takes advantage of maritime borders to provide services at sea that cannot be given legally on land. Urbina seeks and finds bad behaviour on all fronts, from cruise ship environmental crimes to murdered stowaways. Some of this is well known, much is revelatory.

Urbina is, understandably, most focused on fishing. How can you not react to a young Cambodian boy – one of hundreds who are trafficked to work at sea for months on end – who, trying to explain the impossibility of paying off his huge debt to his trafficker, “pointed to his own shadow and moving around as if he were trying to grab it, [said] ‘can’t catch’”. The enslaved men and boys on these vessels often “had never been to sea, and did not know the name of their ship, the fishing company they worked for, or even the full name of their captain”. Their captains don’t lack amphetamines to work their crews harder, but rarely stock antibiotics. Urbina reads reports from Stella Maris that detail “the sick being cast overboard, the defiant beheaded, and the insubordinate sealed for days below deck in a dark, fetid fishing hold”.

Yet revelations from working crew are hard to come by, despite Urbina’s best efforts. Clamming up is a survival mechanism for men who will still be on the boat when the New York Times reporter is not. Nevertheless, Urbina’s ice-breaking attempts are both valiant and charming: he tries betel nut, which makes him puke but makes the crew laugh. He uses what passes for a toilet (squatting precariously between two planks leading overboard) while the crew observes, and falls over his trousers afterwards. Literally butt-naked, he is less threatening.

There is no lack of danger in Urbina’s travels; impressively, he never shies away from it. A chapter on Puntland, an autonomous region of Somalia on the Horn of Africa, is gripping, and probably uncomfortable reading for his family, who thought him to be somewhere near east Kenya rather than spending a night on a hotel roof while waiting in fear for hostile government forces to come, possibly to kill him. This drama is riveting, but so is the endemic abuse that Urbina finds.

There is so much of it, at times I wondered where the boring ships were. I know they exist, because I travelled on two: cargo vessels where crews were paid tax-free and where life was dull but not abusive. It is fair to say that if you want to be a crook, there is no better place to do it than at sea. But it’s a leap to say that everyone at sea is crooked, or that, as Urbina puts it, “everyone in commercial shipping suffers from bribes but nobody wants to fight the problem publicly because virtually all of them are complicit to some degree in the illegal behaviour”. I remember, though, the cartons of Marlboros on the bridge of one ship that were handed out to smooth our passage through the Suez canal, and that the captain dispensed chocolate from the bond store to port officials “but not the Fruit and Nut”, and I wonder. I hope I am right, but maybe Urbina is.

Even so, I don’t doubt the value of Urbina’s work, although now and again, in philosophical wonderings, he does. The senior officers of the Thunder are collectively fined “over $17m but mysteriously released, even though their appeal failed in court”. The laxness of enforcement makes Urbina’s investigations essential. They are a righteously angry indictment, and despite the efforts of Sea Shepherd and the patrolling inspectors of Palau, that is the best we can hope for until we manage to care more about the wildest place on the planet, its creatures and the humans who work there, and decide to defend them all better. 

Rose George’s books include “Deep Sea and Foreign Going” (Portobello)

The Outlaw Ocean
Ian Urbina
Bodley Head, 560pp, £18.99

This article appears in the 16 October 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s forever war