The Outlaw Ocean Project

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

IMSE 2021 Virtual conference

The Outlaw Ocean was featured in the Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Exchange virtual conference on IUU Fishing in Hawaii

The New York Times’ Campaign Turns the Spotlight on Journalists

The New York Times has just run a new advertising campaign that focuses on the motivations of journalists doing international reporting and it highlights footage from The Outlaw Ocean Project and audio from from Ian Urbina. Here is a story in Ad Age about the marketing campaign.

Global Initiative | DEEP DIVE Podcast

This is a story of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, complex corporate structures, human trafficking, arms smuggling, corruption and the capture of state institutions.

Ocean Matters Podcast

Izzie Clarke speaks with Ian Urbina in an Ocean Matters Podcast interview. They discuss issues about lawlessness at sea and how fishing is having a huge impact on the lives of humans.  Slavery, abduction and even murders are taking place on fishing fleets around the world and with these crimes are being committed far from […]

The Marine Diaries

The Outlaw Ocean Project was featured on The Marine Diaries’ townhall on Clubhouse. Listen to the conversation below. Learn more about The Marine Diaries here.

Sea Blindness

In this episode of the Sea Control podcast, host Walker Mills talks with Pulitzer Prize-winning author and investigative journalist Ian Urbina about his recent article in the New Yorker about fish meal and his book The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier. Ian describes his experiences reporting from the sea, the impacts of […]

Pete Buttigieg recommends The Outlaw Ocean

In a recent interview with Remotely Renee, former Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg reviewed The Outlaw Ocean. “Two thirds of the world is covered in ocean. We don’t think about some of the things that go on outside of the reach of the law and some of the regulations that exist. There’s a lot of […]

Carne Cruda tackles The Outlaw Ocean

The Outlaw Ocean Project was featured on Carne Cruda, a popular podcast produced by Spanish publication “Ian Urbina defines the ocean as a beautiful place where you can encounter intrepid heroes but also the most despicable pirates (…)The Outlaw Ocean is a raw account of crime on the high seas that describes a universe […]

Healthy and Productive Oceans

In honor of United Nations World Oceans Day and the Decade of Ocean Science, Ocean Non-Profit Founders Ian Urbina and Bren Smith (GreenWave) come together to discuss ocean affairs and learn from one another’s creative approaches to advocate for and regenerate healthy and productive oceans.

Así Crece la Piratería en Alta Mar

The Outlaw Ocean Project was featured in El Confidencial. Read the piece here and watch below.

A quest to expose

The Outside Podcast discusses The Outlaw Ocean Project on their latest episode. Listen to it below.

Lost at sea

The mystery of Gulf Livestock 1, a 12,000-tonne ship that disappeared without a trace. The Outlaw Ocean Project is featured on Tortoise Media’s Slow Newscast.

Africa news tonight

The Outlaw Ocean Project was featured on Voice of America’s Africa News Tonight. “More than 80% of the world’s fish stocks are at or beyond the point of collapse…If the seas run out of marine life, the ocean stops serving a key purpose. The ocean produces 50% of the air we breathe, it’s a huge […]

Follow the data

On this episode of Bloomberg’s Follow the Data podcast, Ian Urbina joins Melissa Wright – who oversees the Vibrant Oceans Initiative, Bloomberg Philanthropies’ program that works to protect the ocean and those who depend on it — from climate change, pollution, and overfishing. Melissa and Ian will tell us more about how reporting at sea has changed during the COVID-19 pandemic, how his […]

Where your fish comes from

“Without sufficient journalistic coverage, people will never know how that fried calamari ended up as their appetizer or how that salmon fillet ended up as their entrée..It’s almost as everything goes and nobody sees…These people are in debt even before they get on the boats. In effect they are slaves, and they’re invisible to us…The […]


Host Javier Martínez Molina and Marta Montojo with The Outlaw Ocean Project was featured on the Spanish radio show, Ecogestiona. Listen to the full episode here.

Life at Sea

The Outlaw Ocean Project was featured on Sentient Media’s Life at sea.

Uncovering the secret stories of the ocean

The Outlaw Ocean Project was featured on the Conservation X Labs’ Xploring Podcast here.

Salty Cinema & Seafood Sustainability

The Outlaw Ocean Project was featured in a Salty Cinema event.

Listen to the label

The Outlaw Ocean Project’s Holly Speck and Charlotte Norsworthy were featured on the Rhythm Passport Podcast. Listen here.

Long years of dangerous endeavors

Bracenet published an interview with Ian Urbina. Read it here.

Congestion and Chaos

With thousands of mariners stranded in foreign waters by the coronavirus pandemic, and congestion and chaos affecting ports worldwide, there’s no shortage of issues for The Outlaw Ocean Project to cover.

The Wildest and Least Understood

The Outlaw Ocean Project was featured on the Intelligence Squared podcast.

Catch Our Drift: Survival

The Outlaw Ocean Project was featured on the Catch Our Drift podcast.

Global Implications of Illegal Fishing

The Outlaw Ocean Project participated in the 2021 State of the World conference with FIU.

Dive in with Sylvia Earle

Ian Urbina chats with Sylvia Earle about the high seas and the need for its protection, not only for the health of the planet, but in defense of human rights.

Using Satellites to Reveal Global Extent of Forced Labor

The Outlaw Ocean Project served as a key contributor to recent scientific research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

A World Without Law

The Outlaw Ocean Project was featured in Neue Zürcher Zeitung, a Swiss, German-language newspaper.

Lecture of Opportunity

The Outlaw Ocean Project was invited to give the 2020 Lecture of Opportunity at the U.S. Naval War College.

The Outlaw Ocean Ranked in Best of Non-Fiction

El Mundo prepared a list of the best non-fiction books of 2020, and The Outlaw Ocean ranks at No. 7.

The Future of the World’s Oceans

The Outlaw Ocean Project was featured at this year’s American Geographical Society conference, Geography 2050.

Senate Oceans Caucus

The Outlaw Ocean Project’s reporting on the Chinese distant-water fishing fleet was presented before the U.S. Senate Oceans Caucus.

War on the Rocks

The Outlaw Ocean Project was featured on War on the Rocks to discuss issues related to piracy, kidnapping, and stowaways on the high seas.

Love Tropics

Mojang Studios, the developers of Minecraft, hosted a 48-hour marathon event where people played to fundraise for ocean issues before a live audience of thousands.

A dual masterpiece

The Outlaw Ocean Music Project was featured on the Shack15 Conversations podcast with musician Christopher Willits.

The Lead Podcast

The Outlaw Ocean Project was featured on the University of Georgia’s podcast, The Lead.

Oceans Daily

The Outlaw Ocean Project was featured in Oceans Daily Magazine.

Catch of the day

China accounts for nearly half of the world’s fishing activity.

A bitter taste

The Outlaw Ocean Project was featured in La Méduse Déchainée, a French magazine.

Behind the Story with The Pulitzer Center

The Pulitzer Center profiled The Outlaw Ocean Music Project.

Outlaws of international waters

The Outlaw Ocean Project was featured on KUOW with Ross Reynolds.

Storytelling with Music

The Outlaw Ocean Music Project was featured in Argentina’s largest newspaper, Clarín.

An Exploration at Stanford

Stanford Law School and its Center for Oceans Solutions is hosting a graduate degree course based off of The Outlaw Ocean.

The Charles and Marie Fish Lecture

The Outlaw Ocean Project was highlighted at the 2020 Charles and Marie Fish Lecture, hosted by the University of Rhode Island.

The Watery West

The Outlaw Ocean Project and musician Zachary Gray were featured on CBC’s London Morning radio show to discuss The Outlaw Ocean Music Project.

‘Quite potent and powerful’

The Outlaw Ocean Project was featured on the ManTalks Podcast.

Ghost Boats and Geopolitics

Intelligence Squared Podcast featured The Outlaw Ocean Project’s recent reporting on battered North Korean fishing boats washing ashore in Japan.

Bribe, Swindle or Steal

The Outlaw Ocean Project was featured on TRACE’s Bribe, Swindle or Steal podcast.

Lax Regulations Made Beirut Blast Possible

Reporting from The Outlaw Ocean Project was featured in Forbes.

Receivers of stolen goods

The Outlaw Ocean Project was featured at the 2020 Chatham House Forum on IUU fishing.

Investigating the Squid Industry

The Outlaw Ocean Project’s investigation was featured in a column in Oceanographic Magazine written by Joseph Sullivan.

Moisés Naím and The Dark Fleet

The Outlaw Ocean was featured on Moisés Naím’s show, Efecto Naím, to discuss the troubling illegalities faced on the Sea of Japan (East Sea).

The Nat Geo Storytelling Fellowship

The National Geographic Society announced that The Outlaw Ocean Project has been selected for the 2020-2021 National Geographic Storytelling Fellowship.

‘A dark and inspiring place’

The Outlaw Ocean Music Project was featured on WKNY’s Green Radio Hour.

Citizen Chef Podcast

The Outlaw Ocean Project was featured on the Citizen Chef Podcast with Tom Colicchio discussing supply chains associated with the fishing industry.

Media Impact Funders Forum

The Outlaw Ocean Project was featured on a panel for the 2020 Media Impact Funders Forum.

‘Silent, shady criminality’

The Foreign Desk interviews The Outlaw Ocean Project about sea slavery and the legal loopholes that enable such practices to flourish.

‘A remarkable work’

The Outlaw Ocean Project was interviewed for Australia’s Radio Northern Beaches show “Innovation Talk,” to discuss the reporting and The Outlaw Ocean Music Project.

Melding storytelling with music

The Outlaw Ocean Project was interviewed for the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation to discuss The Outlaw Ocean Music Project.

Heroes For the Waters

The Outlaw Ocean Project was featured at EarthX Films Virtual 2020 conference, discussing music, journalism and ocean lawlessness.

A global threat

Read Ian’s interview with Germany’s P.M. Magazine.

The Ocean’s Song

The Outlaw Ocean is arguably the most thorough account to date of the seedy side of ocean life.

Part two: Ian Urbina on Efecto Naím

In part two of this interview on Efecto Naím, Ian discusses his experiences at sea with Moisés Naím, including his visits to Sealand and his embed aboard the Adelaide.

Rising tide

The Rising Tide podcast hosts Ian to discuss issues the oceans are facing and ways to tackle them.

Moisés Naím interviews Ian Urbina

In part one of this interview on Efecto Naím, Ian discusses his experiences at sea with Moisés Naím, including his encounters with pirates, mercenaries and traffickers.

The Storytellers Summit

Ian Urbina sits down with National Geographic’s Chief Storytelling Officer, Kaitlin Yarnall.

The Constant Wonder

The lawlessness of the high seas is a human phenomenon.

When We Talk about Animals

What does it mean to be human on the high seas?

Slate France on ‘The Outlaw Ocean’

Haute mer, le Far West des océans

Living on earth

About seventy percent of our planet is covered by the oceans, but the high seas are among the least-explored frontiers on Earth.

Revisiting ‘The Outlaw Ocean’

Their stories of astonishing courage and brutality, survival and tragedy.

A conversation with BookBub

For most of us, the ocean represents a vacation destination: a place to relax and play. For Ian Urbina, the ocean represents a lawless frontier.

Rampantly Criminal World

Once they’re outside their country’s Exclusive Economic Zone, there are very few laws that protect them.

‘A gripping adventure story’

Ian Urbina was featured on Town Hall Seattle’s Science Series podcast to discuss The Outlaw Ocean.

Urbina on FranceTV

Ian Urbina was featured on FranceTV to discuss The Outlaw Ocean.

Urbina Testifies Before Congress

Ian Urbina testifies before Congress about The Outlaw Ocean.

Le Devoir: Des océans de misère

The Outlaw Ocean was featured in French publication Le Devoir.

Traveling further for the catch

Ian Urbina was featured on CBC Radio’s The Current to discuss The Outlaw Ocean.

Documenting global injustices

Ian Urbina was featured on the Libreria Podcast discussing The Outlaw Ocean.

Ian Urbina on France 24

Ian Urbina was featured on France 24 to discuss The Outlaw Ocean.

Diversity of Abuses

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

Lawless and largely invisible

In “The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys across the last untamed frontier,” investigative journalist Ian Urbina uncovers slavery, overfishing and human trafficking on the high seas.

Ian Urbina on Konbini News

Ian Urbina was featured on France’s Konbini News to discuss The Outlaw Ocean.

The Underworld

Ian Urbina was featured on the Intelligence Squared podcast.

Global Indifference Leads to Mistreatment

Ian Urbina on KPCC’s AirTalk.

Exploited off the grid

Ian Urbina was featured on Monocle’s The Foreign Desk.

‘A bizarre and fascinating place’

Ian Urbina was interviewed for Ireland’s Ryan Tubridy Show.

Ian Urbina on NowThis Español

El periodista Ian Urbina pasó 5 años reportando en crímenes marítimos como el tráfico de armas, la pesca ilegal y la esclavitud marítima—así es que estos crímenes afectan el medio ambiente

Lawlessness on the high seas

Ian Urbina at The Aspen Institute

‘Unimaginable levels of crime at sea’

Ian Urbina was featured on PoliticsJOE to discuss the various types of crimes rampant at sea.

The ripple effect on the environment

Ian Urbina was featured on NowThis to discuss illegal activity at sea and its impact on the environment.

‘A bizarre and fascinating place’

Ian Urbina was interviewed for Ireland’s Ryan Tubridy Show.

Reporting on the vivid and corrupt

This is part four of Ian Urbina’s World Ocean Radio Series.

Wage Theft, Slavery and Climate Change

The ocean is vast and unknown to most of us. And yet, it’s essential.

A magnified mirror image

“Victor Hugo called the oceans monsters, but Urbina details the monstrous deeds done by man on those bitter waters, a magnified mirror image of the Far West on land.”

Cutting corners for consumer goods

There is absolutely no way to produce a can of tuna that costs a dollar. And yet, there it is on our grocery shelves. Ever wonder how?

Dumping into the Ocean

This is part three of Ian Urbina’s World Ocean Radio Series.

Corruption on the high seas

This is part two of Ian Urbina’s four-part series with World Ocean Radio.

The concealed costs of shipping industries

Sea Change Radio interviewed Ian Urbina about the hidden costs of the seafood and shipping industries.

Inhabitants of the hidden world

Utah Public Radio hosts Ian Urbina on show “Access Utah.”

‘Out of this world’

Ian Urbina was featured on Green Radio Hour discussing his new book, The Outlaw Ocean.

Chronicling conditions on the high seas

Politics and Prose hosted Ian Urbina to discuss his book, The Outlaw Ocean in August 2019.

Crime hidden from view

Ian Urbina begins installment one of four on World Ocean Radio.

An Inside Look at Slavery on Fishing Vessels

Ian Urbina is interviewed for the UN Dispatch podcast to discuss forced labor on fishing vessels in the South China Sea.

Labor Trafficking on the South China Sea

Ian Urbina appears on Knowledge @ Wharton to discuss his new book, The Outlaw Ocean.

Investigating crime on The Outlaw Ocean

The ocean is huge, hard to police, and virtually lawless in some places.

Ian Urbina Joins The Atlantic

Ian Urbina, a longtime reporter for The New York Times and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, is becoming a contributing writer for The Atlantic

A lack of governance at sea

Oceana interviews Ian Urbina about his new book, The Outlaw Ocean.