Wage Theft, Slavery, and Climate Change on the Outlaw Ocean

In a new book based on years of reporting, Ian Urbina charts the reality of fish poachers, human trafficking, and the banal horrors of life at sea.



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

Oceans cover two-thirds of the earth’s surface. They provide more than 50 percent of our oxygen and employ about 65 million people on fishing boats. Ninety percent of all the products we purchase travel by ship.

But this immense, indispensable mass of water can also be a very dark place. In The Outlaw Ocean, journalist Ian Urbina takes us on a journey onto the decks of dirty, dilapidated vessels and the cramped crawlspaces where the crews live. We meet desolate men who have been sold onto ships or are trapped in debt bondage, including one who is shackled by the neck. We follow vigilante conservationists chasing fish poachers and marine police capturing and exploding foreign boats suspected of illegal fishing. We witness violence and exploitation, but also human ingenuity and deep resilience. It’s a fast-paced read, both riveting and harrowing.

The reporting originated as a series in The New York Times, where Urbina was a staff writer. He later took a leave from the paper to continue work on the book. In total, the reporting took more than four years, spanning 40 cities and every continent, and over 12,000 nautical miles across five oceans and 20 other seas.

Civil Eats spoke with Urbina about his new book, the link between labor and environmental abuses on the ocean, how climate change is amplifying the challenges at sea, and what consumers can do to prevent sea slavery.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

The unifying theme of your book is lawlessness at sea—manifest both in insufficient laws and lax enforcement —and how it leads to horrendous labor and environmental abuses. Why is lawlessness such a problem on the ocean?

There are several reasons. One is geography; it’s just a sprawling space that’s very difficult to police. Number two is jurisdictional. Much of the offshore realm is the high seas, meaning international waters, which is to say it belongs to everyone and no one. And therein lies the Tragedy of the Commons, whereby no one really takes responsibility for the costly job of protecting it. And three, the nature of what happens there. The ships that are either the victims or the culprits, or maybe both, of illegality are flagged to one nation, owned by another nation, captained by a third, and crewed by a fourth and fifth. And the fourth and the fifth nations are often places that are very poor, so those who work on these fishing vessels tend to be people who don’t have the resources to hire lawyers or to lobby governments to better protect themselves.

You say that “it’s hard to distinguish predator from prey.” Do the labor and environmental problems you describe result from poverty in developing countries? Should we see them through a different lens?

There are extreme examples of depraved, sadistic characters. But for the most part, the people in that in-between and the sorts of crimes they’re engaged in, are ones that are partially driven, or at least reinforced, by desperation. Wage theft, the intentional dumping of oil, shark finning—in each of those categories you’ll find people who are the culprits, but if you really try to understand what makes them tick, you’ll see that they’re pretty desperate characters who are victims themselves of a larger, screwed-up system. And that doesn’t justify for a second what they do, especially on the wage theft front. But it would be foolish to not think about the folks that are higher up on the chain of responsibility, including you and I, as benefiting from the ridiculously cheap things that we blindly consume.

You describe conditions on fishing boats ranging from rape and murder to debt bondage and roach-infected food. What were the most difficult circumstances you witnessed?

There were two categories, the acute and the chronic. The acute ones, the physical conditions in which people lived and worked on the boats, were shocking. I just got back a week ago from The Gambia, where I boarded Chinese vessels mostly crewed by workers from Senegal, The Gambia, and Sierra Leone. And I saw things that just hit me in the stomach. On one ship, six men were traversing thousands of miles on a boat that barely looked seaworthy. They were sleeping and weathering storms and doing everything but working in a steel compartment that was as tall as a coffin and about 6 feet wide.

There was a metal plate that you took off to climb in. And it was on deck level, which meant that whenever water hit the deck, it flowed inwards. The floor of this space was 20 inches above the engine. So it literally cooked these guys while water flowed in on the sides. There were foam mattresses laying there, waterlogged. An electrical cord ran into this space for them to power whatever it is they had. And twice, the water had flown in, hit the power strip and blown it, setting the mattresses on fire. I just couldn’t believe in this day and age this still exists—and not only exists, but is the norm.

Then the banal, understated stuff is wage theft. It’s the most unsexy, incremental, un-headline-worthy crime. But when you see the way it plays out, it’s haunting. These guys from tiny villages borrow from the local priest and borrow from their cousin and do everything they can to get these jobs. They go off to sea for nine months, they’re sick half the time, bad things happen to them, they see others die. Then they come back home and they have not a cent in their account. The way it ruins these men in their very spirit is a crime that’s horrific to see. And it’s hard to capture that in writing because wage theft, that term, is so boring. But on the ocean, it’s so pervasive and so ruinous that I would put it up there on par with putting men in an oven and cooking them slowly.

You touch on how human rights abuses are inextricably linked with environmental abuses. Do we have to address them together?

A big problem is that the environmental movement and the labor movement are separate things. In many ways they don’t even get along and they don’t work together. That’s a major challenge in helping the ocean and the people who work there. For example, with a major accomplishment like the Port State Measures Agreement, the signatory countries agreed to check the ships when they come to land against a set of standards. But that list of standards was largely driven by the environmentalists concerned about illegal fishing.

We might know every step of the way where the tuna came from, but we have no idea about the men on board… are they legal, do they have a contract, are any of them missing, were they raped, are they going to get paid? All basic questions, nowhere to be found. That’s a major problem because in the public consciousness, when there’s an initiative like this, the public thinks we’ve dealt with the issue. But the initiative addresses only part of it.

At the core, a lot of the abuses are not driven by evil depravity, they’re driven by market pressures and hidden costs. There’s where environmental and human rights connect. From a market perspective, ships are going much farther out from shore because of overfishing near shore. The price of the globalized economy has gone down on everything, so the boats and the companies have to catch more fish for cheaper, at farther distances.

And that’s the problem. How do you make that work when you already have thin margins to begin with, when your fuel costs more than it used to? The math doesn’t make sense and that’s where hidden savings come into play. The thinking goes: If we hire guys from a little village who have no clue, and move them over here on the cheap and give them a ridiculous contract or no contact whatsoever, and we use this outside firm, they’ll just show up and work for us and then they’ll go home. Any wage issues are between them and their “manning agency.”

In the book, a marine police officer says, “We can’t arrest the climate.” How does climate change exacerbate problems like overfishing and the abuse of fishermen?

The climate is changing the realities in the ocean. Some species are being decimated by acidification and temperature changes. And the [marine food] pyramid that exists above them is toppling. It makes the pressure on other species more acute, increasing their vulnerability to overfishing. Those changes are making it harder for the industry to do what it aims to do.

In the unpredictability that climate change is causing, in the ways that the species are now moving, competition is becoming more edgy. There were set patterns and people carved up what they did. Now some of the patterns are going out the window and it means that folks are invading other folks’ [waters]. I just got back from South Korea where I was looking at squid boats and the Chinese incursions into North Korean waters chasing the squid and capturing them before they head south into South Korea and Japan. There’s been an 80 percent drop in squid catches in South Korean and Japanese waters in the last decade. And it’s ruinous, it’s changing entire coastal communities.

You say the fishing industry has become more efficient and it’s now akin to farming on land. What are the main similarities?

I think technology in the form of satellite plus radar plus bigger and stronger nets plus engine efficiency plus cooling technology such as refrigeration, all those things make fishing more like agriculture because the arc of knowing how to find the fish and catch up with them is really not there anymore. It’s now a science of picking as much of them as you can get. Whether they are squid or tuna or another species, it’s just a matter of how you can efficiently get out there and snatch them up before the next guy. And that means that the sheer quantity of stuff being pulled out of the water is now so much bigger.

As I read the stories, I kept asking myself, “Am I eating the fish that these men are hauling out in these horrible conditions?” How are Americans contributing to these environmental and labor abuses?

I think we all are. I don’t know a chaser to put on that drink. The only thing I could say is that the U.S. and the U.K. are better than much of the world when it comes to managing their own waters and their own fleets both in human rights and environmental concerns. But very little of the fish that we Americans consume is fished from our waters or comes from boats that are flagged to the U.S. The vast majority of our seafood is coming from foreign vessels on the high seas or foreign waters. This means American consumers are just as complicit.

Why do you think consumers are willing to ignore these abuses?

I think consumers are progressively worried about this stuff. If you look at other supply chain moments, such as blood diamonds, dolphin-free tuna, sweatshop garments, these are examples of products that, through journalism, government oversight, or human rights group activism, were highlighted as being complicit in issues like child labor, forced labor, or environmental degradation. I think seafood is having a bit of that moment right now. Although, as we become more alienated from the things we consume, especially while buying online, the out-of-sight,out-of-mind problem becomes more intense.

What can we do as consumers to help?

I duck this question because it feels like one step too far as a journalist. That said, don’t try to take on the war, choose your battle. In the book, I describe murder, stowaways, the dumping of oil, enslavement, wage theft, and whaling. Think about what issue speaks to you and that’s the one you should pause over. The next step is to ask what organizations are attempting to work on this issue, which ones seem like they’re doing a good job, and what do they say about the best ways to try to lessen your complicity.

You talk about the role of the journalist as a witness, which is an ideal we all aspire to. But did you ever have an urge to interfere or help? How do you respond as a human being when you’re reporting on these abuses day in, day out?

Let’s go back to a word choice of yours, which is that bearing witness is a great ideal. I’m not sure about that. I struggle with this journalistic ideal. I certainly understand it and I have lived by it. At the same time, I think it can be deeply unethical and problematic. And just on a personal level, sometimes I’m worried: was I engaged in voyeurism, exploitative voyeurism, in which I was taking this misery and chronicling it with the hope that in so doing I would help correct it, but also with the likelihood that I would benefit from it by filling the newspaper and promoting my career as a brave storyteller? But this person would still be there. Is that OK? I don’t know.

And sometimes I felt deeply sullied by it, like in that scene at the karaoke bar in Ranong [that served as a brothel and a debt trap for migrant men trafficked to serve on fishing boats. Some of the sex workers were trafficked children]. We walked out and those young girls stayed there and I couldn’t figure out what to do.

There are also moments in the book when I cross the traditional line. In Indonesia, when the incident went down with an officer possibly dying and our ship possibly getting lit up, I was like, OK, all bets are off. [Urbina was embedded with the Indonesian Marine Police when they arrested Vietnamese fishermen and the Vietnam Coast Guard responded by ramming a ship and taking an Indonesian officer captive].

And I don’t care what my journalistic peers think of me, but I decided to play the part of hostage negotiator. So there were times when I just sort of threw the ideal out the window. The thing that sticks with me is not just seeing that stuff, but knowing it’s still going on and I came and went. I don’t know whether that means the better option is to stop reporting, though. That just seems like turning your back on it. Or continue doing it as a direct advocate? But then you can’t continue on as a chronicler and you’re changing the story. So for now, I’m staying the course.

You describe extreme boredom, long periods of silence, fear, longing, and the lack of basic communication between crew members. What role do human emotions play in exacerbating the abuses on the lawless ocean?

Think of the experience of ocean travel as a form of solitary confinement. You’re locked in a prison cell, it happens to be in an agorophobically wide open space, but you’re still locked in this cell with a bunch of people for extended periods of time. And it’s monotony coupled with biblical-level shit, dramatic stuff like storms. And now multiply that times months. And maybe you’re someone with a limited vocabulary, limited education, limited processing tools. You’re divorced from your family, from people on land, you don’t have a sense of time and space. All those things really degrade people’s mental health.

You go in with something and it probably is going to get bent and worsened. And what’s weird is you become addicted to it. It’s like the men or women who come back from war zones and they don’t know how to reacclimate. All they know is the war theater, even though they’re haunted by it. It’s similar on the ocean. These guys complain about the boredom and the brutality, yet they’re like “I’m heading back out in three months.”

At the end of my reporting, I had this grand epiphany about how the absence of authority and the absence of law on the ocean are somehow connected to the absence of words and interactions. It’s a void. It’s neither good nor evil. It’s just an open space that can eat you alive. And it does routinely. The ocean is this beautiful thing, … but it’s also crushing.

How do you see the future of the ocean and that of the people who work and live there? How can we improve this future?

We need to reject the cultural notion that this space [the ocean] is different from another such as the international airspace. There’s no reason to think that in this day and age it should be accepted practice that ships on the ocean are allowed to turn off their transponders, that they don’t really need to tell you who is on board and when they got on and off, or what they’re going to be paid. All of these cultural luxuries are afforded this space because there’s this seafaring fantasy and there’s a hierarchy on a ship and when a captain leaves land the law becomes his.

I think that as a society we have to reject that. There will be lots of pushback and everything is going to get more expensive. Well, that’s the nature of trying to modernize the world and stamp out slavery. But I think we have the ability to do this, if the political will is there. And that sort of oversight and accountability and tracking would benefit both the people and the fish. It would require countries saying, “Hey fishing industry, sorry, it’s time to catch up.”

Ian Urbina author photo © Jabin Botsford 2019

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