Violence at sea
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 violence at sea.
For the past ten years, I have focused on the darker side of the world’s oceans and have been witness to pretty horrific human rights and environmental crimes. My organization, called The Outlaw Ocean Project, focuses on investigative reporting that aims to expose stories about these abuses that are often overlooked by the media. But I also witnessed unparalleled beauty and true spectacle. I met bizarre, sometimes heroic actors in a setting that drowned the senses, a place of brighter sun, louder waves, and stronger wind than I previously knew to exist.
One particular afternoon comes to mind. I stood on the front deck of a ship in the South Atlantic Ocean. Under an apricot sunset, I watched a winged fish fly through the air. Moments later, several birds dove into the ocean. That night was cloudless, and with flatness all around me, the sky was as big as it ever gets. At night, shooting stars left white slashes like chalk lines on a blackboard. The most dazzling streaks, though, were not in the sky but underwater. As fish darted through certain areas, the sea was slashed with glowing blue lines, the result of a mesmerizing defence mechanism of bioluminescent plankton that allows them to produce light.
What grabbed me that day was how much of this place is magically upside down: fish in the air, birds underwater, white streaks above us, blue below. Part of its beauty is its exotic unpredictability. Each time I returned to land, I felt an intense longing for this place, despite the suffering I’d seen there. As much as this world is gorgeous, there is also a dystopian realm that too often gets overlooked. I have explored the dark underbelly of this offshore world, where the worst instincts of our human species thrived and flourished. The reality of fishing vessels, for example, is brutal, as recent research has shown. The number of violent killings – and deaths at sea in general – remain extremely hard to assess.
The typical estimate has been about 32,000 casualties per year, making commercial fishing among the most dangerous professions on the planet. The new estimate is more than 100,000 fatalities per year – more than 300 a day – according to research produced by the FISH Safety Foundation and funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
A recent report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization said the reasons for this significant loss of life include the lack of a comprehensive safety legislative framework and coordinated approaches to promoting safety at sea in the fishing sector. But the United Nations, which tracks fatalities by profession, does not indicate how many of these deaths are from avoidable accidents, neglect or violence. Brutality in distant-water fishing fleets – and the connection to forced labour on these vessels – has been an open secret for a while. A report released in May by the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab showed, for example, that migrant workers on British fishing ships were systematically overworked and underpaid while more than a third of the workers said they experienced severe physical violence.
In 2020, a team of researchers used satellite data tracking of about 16,000 fishing ships to estimate that up to 100,000 people – a quarter of those sailing on those vessels – were at high risk of being victims of forced labour. The Environmental Justice Foundation interviewed 116 Indonesian crew members who worked on fishing vessels from China, which has the world’s largest distant-water fishing fleet. Comfortably more than half had seen or experienced physical violence, the organization found.
Addressing such violence and other brutal conditions in commercial fishing is difficult because so little data is captured or provided to the public. That research shortfall is a major barrier to regulating the industry. Ship owners and crews are not even legally obligated to report crimes at sea. The lack of governance at sea is a root cause. Such killings will continue to go unchecked and unpunished without better tracking of offshore violence, more transparency from flag registries and fishing companies, and more effort by governments to prosecute the perpetrators. And that matters because what occurs at sea affects everyone. By some estimates, upwards of 90% of world trade is moved by sea and seafood is a major source of protein for much of the world.
There are reasons for hope. Satellites make it tougher for ships to go dark and hide their crimes. Cell phones make it easier for crew members to document violence. A growing use of open-source footage by journalists has bolstered public awareness of human rights and labour abuses offshore. Our hope is that through investigative reporting we can change some of these problems.
This column appears in ISSUE 28: Sea Forests at the End of the World of Oceanographic Magazine
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