Reimagining the realm

Ian Urbina is the director of The Outlaw Ocean Project, a non-profit journalism organization based in Washington D.C. In this column, he writes about reimagining the realm.

Words by Ian Urbina
Photograph by Ed Ou/The Outlaw Ocean Project

Two-thirds of the planet is covered by water, and much of that space is ungoverned. Human rights and environmental crimes occur often and with impunity because the ocean is sprawling and what laws exist are difficult to enforce. Part of the problem, though, is in our heads. The ocean is typically and correctly viewed as a marine habitat. But it is much more than that. It is a workplace, a metaphor, an escape, a prison, a grocery store, a trash can, a cemetery, a bonanza, an organ, a highway, a depot, and, above all, an opportunity. Unless we reckon with this truth, unless we reimagine this domain more broadly, we will continue falling short in governing, protecting, and understanding the ocean.

The ocean is a workplace. More than 50 million people work offshore and many of these people work in fishing, which is the world’s most dangerous profession, resulting in more than 100,000 fatalities per year – more than 300 a day. 

The ocean is a metaphor. This place offshore has long connoted infinity, sui generis abundance, tireless plenty – where fish will regenerate and replenish themselves indefinitely. This perception is part of why the ocean has been taken for granted for centuries. If the ocean is so vast and indestructible, if it can replenish itself so boundlessly, why bother restraining ourselves in what we take from it or dump into it? 

The ocean is an escape. For centuries, life at sea has been romanticised as the ultimate expression of freedom – a refuge from landlocked life, distinctly removed from government meddling, a chance to explore, to reinvent. From Moby Dick to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, hunters, adventurers and explorers have chased this dream. 

The ocean is a prison. Far from escape or recourse, ships at sea are for many workers a jail without bars. Every year tens of thousands of men and boys are bought and sold like chattel, and then find themselves stuck in bondage, sometimes for years – and even in shackles – on distant water fishing ships.

The ocean is a grocery story. More than 50% of the animal protein people consume in some parts of the developing world comes from seafood, which is the largest globally traded food commodity by value in the world. Industrial fishing has now advanced technologically so much that it has become less an art than a science, more a harvest than a hunt. The consequence is that more than a third of the world’s stocks are overfished.  

The ocean is a trash can. For centuries, humanity has seen the seas as so vast as to have a limitless ability to absorb and metabolise all, a perception that has given us licence to dump virtually anything offshore. Oil, sewage, corpses, chemical effluvium, garbage, military ordnance, and even at-sea superstructures like oil rigs disappear into the ocean, as if swallowed up by a black hole, never to be seen again. 

The ocean is a cemetery. Thousands of migrants disappear offshore each year – many of them in the Mediterranean Sea, for example, as they try desperately to cross over to Europe from launching points in Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia. When rough seas or human traffickers or the Libyan Coast Guard overturn these crowded rafts, their passengers don’t just drown. Their bodies disappear into a blackness that conceals world notice. And so the sinister cycle continues.  

The ocean is a bonanza. Is it thievery to take unchecked amounts of something from an area that belongs to everyone? No, it’s called unregulated fishing, which happens to be the norm in international waters. And there is far more on offer at sea than food. Oil and gas drillers, miners, treasure hunters, wreck thieves, and biomedical prospectors know this all too well. 

The ocean is an organ. The lungs of the globe, the ocean produces at least half of the oxygen we breathe. But as we burn more fossil fuels and release more carbon into the air, much of it dissolves and suffocates the water, thus killing the planet. The ocean has also already absorbed 90 percent of the excess heat from global warming, and today is 30 percent more acidic than it was before the Industrial Revolution.

The ocean is a highway. The high seas are the expressway of world commerce. In today’s globalised economy, part of the reason that more than 70 percent of the products we consume travel by ship is that the high seas are distinctly less encumbered with borders and bureaucracies. 

The ocean is a weapons depot. Plied by more ships than ever before, the ocean is also more armed and dangerous. Starting in 2008, as pirates began operating across larger swaths of the ocean, many merchant vessels hired private security, and their forces soon outstripped governments’ policing abilities.

The ocean is an opportunity. Not just a gritty netherworld, the ocean also represents a chance for salvation. Can governments find common good above self-interest and cooperate toward managing the high seas? The recent UN treaty on biodiversity was a step in this direction. The next test is whether governments can use the ocean as an opportunity to collaborate in mitigating the climate crisis. 

A first and essential step to countering these many problems is to broaden our thinking about the ocean. Dispatches from the Outlaw Ocean is a documentary series that offers a sober tour through this untamed frontier. Its goal is to stoke urgency and to help the global public reimagine the ocean not as a thing that we take for granted, a bottomless trash can, a forever self-replenishing resource that we use to fill our stomachs or line our wallets, but instead as a vast habitat that we should leave alone, a workplace needing regulation, less a grocery store than a library or a cathedral, a protected common. 

Photograph by Ed Ou/The Outlaw Ocean Project
Issue 30
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_blancpain

This column appears in ISSUE 30: BLEACHED of Oceanographic Magazine

Issue 30
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_blancpain
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_blancpain

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