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Pirates, Stowaways, Vigilantes: ‘The Outlaw Ocean’ Humanizes Crime on the High Seas

Reporter Ian Urbina spent years at sea reporting on maritime crime. His new book exposes the strange world that few on land ever experience.

by Madeleine Gregory
Aug 27 2019, 12:00pm

Marine conservation direct action group Sea Shepherd. Image: GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP/Getty Images

Ian Urbina, an investigative journalist with the New York Times, has spent the better part of the past five years out on the open ocean, what he calls the “last untamed frontier.”

In his aptly-titled new book, The Outlaw Ocean, Urbina recounts how he spent time with criminals of every stripe, got battered by extreme storms, and confronted horrifying human rights crises. Given the larger-than-life events he faced, it’s no wonder that when Urbina talks about the ocean his language is out of this world. The people out there are “otherworldly” and “extraterrestrial;” going out to sea is “space travel on Earth.”

In 2014, Urbina began a multi-part series in the Times, chronicling a world in which the laws that protect people and the environment don't hold much water. After two years of telling these stories in print, he realized that he wasn't finished and set out for another stint of reporting, sometimes spending weeks or months at a time at sea. The stories in The Outlaw Ocean reflect all of this time on the water.

In the book's first story, Sea Shepherd, the radical environmental group promoting direct action on the seas, chases down a boat (the Thunder) that was engaged in illegal fishing. This sets the tone for the book, in which laws are ill-enforced and regularly broken by people at sea.

“One thing that helped me was to think of this place as 'outlaw,' not illegal,” Urbina said. “That doesn’t frame it on an ethical spectrum, you’re just looking at it from the outside.”

On the open water, societal problems are magnified or distorted, and the solutions to them are equally complex. The stories in The Outlaw Ocean expose hidden realities both “above and below the water line,” Urbina said. These include tales of volunteer doctors providing abortions where they are illegal, stowaways set adrift and left to die at sea, and ships dumping waste straight into the ocean.

On land, it can be easy to feel removed from this seemingly lawless world, but our lives are intimately connected to it. Ships carry 90% of the goods we consume globally. Besides that, a staggering 56 million people globally work at sea on fishing boats, according to The Outlaw Ocean. Much of the fish we eat would not be reach us without illegal fishing, a challenge that markets, governments, and organizations have largely failed to correct.

Often, the disparate world of maritime crime—from piracy, to illegal fishing, to the rampant sea slavery in the South China Sea—escapes much of our notice. That’s partly because no one is telling those stories, Urbina said.

Most, if any, news coverage of seafaring events is done from land, and is necessarily removed from the lives of those living semi-permanently on these ships. Being out at sea allowed Urbina step out of the rules of terrestrial life, spending time on ships with people most of us would run from: slavers, gunrunners, and murderers.

In doing so, he harkened back to his academic training. He was in graduate school for anthropology when he when he took a break to work as a deckhand on a ship, where he got his first real taste of sea life.

“That’s where I first caught the bug, and it was the people more than the place that did it,” Urbina said. “There was this diaspora, transient, invisible tribe that is in some ways the ultimate metaphor for globalization.”

Urbina never finished his dissertation, but he kept a critical academic eye. In The Outlaw Ocean, Urbina focuses that eye on understanding his characters and their context to show why these crimes get committed and why the culprits rarely get prosecuted. Urbina goes further than most to do this. He shows you a problem from the front lines, by talking to the people there.

He stops short, though, of proposing any one solution to the myriad issues at play on the water—that would be a fool's errand. The solutions to a network of global, unreported, and unpunished crimes are as varied as the problems themselves; removing plastic waste from the ocean looks very different from curbing the mistreatment of stowaways, for example.

Of course, there are a lot of people trying to solve these crises, and Urbina said that governments and markets can do a lot more to combat them. The real focus of The Outlaw Ocean, though, is the “invisible people” of the seas, as Urbina calls his book's subjects. His “extraterrestrial” characters—grizzled ship captains, radical vigilantes, stowaways left to die at sea, brutal pirates—are incredibly down-to-earth.

“They have their own language, hierarchy, code of ethics, and diversity of crimes,” Urbina said. “They have a huge role to play, but most of us have no clue of their existence.”