The Economist: Diversity of Abuses

The Economist (World Ocean Initiative) interview about The Outlaw Ocean. 

Read the original here

The Outlaw Ocean is a recently released book about lawlessness at sea and the urgent need for improved governance. It uncovers a diversity of abuses including illegal fishing, arms trafficking, slavery, murder and theft. Journalist Ian Urbina discusses the inspiration behind the book.

Why did you write the book?

I’ve been enchanted by the sea since I was a little boy. Spending time offshore always captured my imagination. I was especially drawn to the idea of taking a ship and crossing this strange and dangerous netherworld that seemed to abide by its own laws of physics—an experience akin to space travel, but on earth.

I got my chance, or so I thought, when I was in graduate school and employed as an anthropologist. I took a job on a research trip in Singapore which, much to my annoyance, ended up never leaving port. So as a travel experience it offered little. But spending long days on the dock, I was exposed to the diaspora tribe of seafarers and I was struck by how distinct they were. They were colourful, clever, rutty, irreverent and generally outside the customs us landlubbers often call law.

I learned that there was a truly outlandish world offshore and my hope then—and over a decade later when I convinced my editor to cut me loose so I could produce the series that ran in The New York Times—was to explore and chronicle these characters. The traffickers and smugglers, pirates and mercenaries, wreck thieves and repo men, vigilante conservationists and elusive poachers, seabound abortion providers, clandestine oil-dumpers, shackled slaves and cast-adrift stowaways. And, truth be told, once I was exposed to the place and the people, I was hooked.

Why is much of the ocean ‘outlaw’?

The seas are vast. Most of that space belongs to no country. The result is that there are few, if any, police out there. In the rare instances where rules apply, there is virtually no one to enforce them. What’s more, when harm comes to seafarers, there is little incentive to investigate or prosecute since most of these crews are poor and have minimal leverage to hire lawyers or attract the attention of government authorities.

This offshore vastness has also given rise to the long-held view that the ocean is indestructible. After all, the fish are plentiful and can forever replenish themselves. The waters are sprawling and can dilute almost anything. Right?

Then there are the hidden advantages of leaving this place in its outlaw state. Moving freight by sea is much cheaper than by air partly because international waters are so uncluttered by national bureaucracies and unconstrained by rules. This lack of regulation has encouraged all manner of illicit activities, from tax sheltering to weapons stockpiling. There is, after all, a reason why the American government chose international waters as the location for the disassembly of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, or for conducting some of its terrorism-related detention and interrogation, or for disposing of Osama bin Laden’s body.

Meanwhile, the fishing and shipping industries are as much victims of offshore lawlessness as they are its beneficiaries or perpetrators.  All of these factors explain why the Outlaw Ocean is—and will likely remain—outlaw.

Can you explain the meaning and causes of ‘sea slavery’?

The fish in the sea are running out. As near-shore stocks disappear, boats are having to travel much farther to catch a bare minimum, which means that margins for profit are razor thin. As a result, companies and captains trying to find savings are increasingly turning to trafficked, debt-bonded and forced labour. More often, these crews are tricked or shanghaied onto boats and never paid if and when they disembark. Governments have scaled back their patrols at sea.

Meanwhile consumers in the developed world are ever-eager for cheaper goods, including seafood. The global economy has become accustomed to tangled and convoluted supply chains where it is very difficult—if not impossible, perhaps by design—to discern whether forced labour is being used to move goods across the ocean or to catch the fish that ends up on our plates.

The most common model of trafficking is as follows: a poor villager in Cambodia is offered an opportunity for a construction job in (wealthier) Thailand. The villager has no money but the “labour broker” (aka trafficker) offers a travel-now-pay-later opportunity; he will provide transport and line up work while the debt for this service can be settled later. The villager is tricked into illegally crossing the border into Thailand and delivered (much to his surprise) not to a construction job but to a fishing boat. The captain of the boat pays the labour broker the debt that the villager accrued for the travel. That captain now essentially owns this worker until that debt is paid. The villager will be trapped on that boat until the captain says the debt is cleared.

What can be done to combat the problems highlighted in the book?

If countries were serious about combating human rights, labour and environmental abuses at sea, they would step up legal protections, patrols and most importantly inspections when ships dock.  They would mandate that vessels keep their locational transponders on at all times so that police, companies and consumers could monitor them. Any time a ship arrives at port they would have to document basic things like what workers are on board, where they are from, what fish have been caught, where and how. Companies would ensure that the workers on their cargo ships have contracts. Much of this type of transparency is already required when it comes to airplanes—why not for ships?

Watch The Outlaw Ocean video