The Outlaw Ocean Project

Lawless and largely invisible

See original Conservation International article here

Earth’s largest expanse is a parallel world, lawless and largely invisible, where crime and exploitation rage unchecked, a new book reports.

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

The effects of these crimes touch nearly everyone on the planet, destroying marine life, undermining food security and driving social instability and poverty.

In a recent conversation with Conservation International CEO M. Sanjayan, Urbina discussed the moments that troubled him most during his years out on the ocean — and why there is still hope.

Urbina spent 40 months on boats traveling 12,000 nautical miles across 14 countries, encountering some of the most flagrant — and unreported — environmental and human rights abuses across the high seas.

On a transnational ship more than 160 km (100 miles) off the coast of Thailand, Urbina witnessed firsthand the horrifying, rat-infested conditions that impoverished fishermen were being forced to endure as they were held captive at sea, far out of reach from any government authorities.

At the core of these abuses is the simple truth that no one is clear on who owns what in the ocean — which means, ultimately, that no one is responsible.

“To me, the problem is an out-of-sight, out-of-mind reality that results in an utter lack of governance in a sprawling space that has for too long simply been thought of as a space — rarely a workplace,” Urbina said. “There is a long cultural and intellectual history behind thinking of the sea and maritime as another world where things are different.”

In international waters, the ocean isn’t legally owned or monitored by any government. Boat captains striving to meet the increasing demand for seafood, for example, can essentially practice slave labor with impunity. To supplement their poor — or non-existent — wages, many disenfranchised fishers turn to illegal practices such as shark finning.

Urbina’s book crystallizes just how entangled human rights abuses and environmental abuses — overfishing, illegal fishing, toxic waste dumping — are in maritime industries.

Echoing the “not-my-problem” approach that individual countries have often taken to lawbreaking out on the water, efforts to reform the fishing industry have largely been split, with environmental organizations addressing issues related to sustainability, ocean health, marine habitats — and social welfare organizations addressing human rights problems.

Only recently has there been broader recognition that environmental problems and social problems on the high seas are two sides of the same coin.

In 2017, Jack Kittinger, a marine expert in Conservation International’s Hawai’i office, conceived a new approach for addressing both at the same time. Working with partners, Kittinger developed a “social responsibility” framework for the seafood industry that offers concrete recommendations to players at every point in the seafood supply chain to ensure that social responsibility is enforced at every level — from the businesses buying the fish to the governments regulating the marine resources powering the industry.

The framework is at the forefront of new approaches to fight crimes on the high seas. A proposed international treaty, now under negotiation, aims to protect marine life in international waters — though questions remain as to enforcement.

What Urbina’s book makes crystal-clear is the colossal scale of illegal activity in international waters.

“Even for someone who spent their entire lives in conservation… [this book] was a revelation to me,” said Sanjayan, noting that while there have been strides in making the sustainability of seafood more transparent, consumers still know next to nothing about the living and working conditions of the people who caught that seafood.

In a “lawless” ocean, how do you even begin to monitor what’s happening, let alone punish abuses and protect the voiceless workers trapped on ships?

“[These boats] moving through a place that no one governs, that have a ship flag to one country, captain from another country, manned by a crew from a different country in international waters and dropping on their cargo in fourth country: It is not easy [to track],” Urbina said.

“But it is utterly feasible. There are already movements afoot.”

Watch the entire interview here.

Kiley Price is a staff writer for Conservation International.

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.