The outlaw ocean

Words by Jed Allen
Photographs courtesy of The Outlaw Ocean

For many of us, ‘maritime crimes’ conjures up images of Somali piracy or the BP oil spill, which are burnt into the popular imagination.

However, Pulitzer prize-winning New York Times journalist and author Ian Urbina set out in 2015 to blow the walls on that narrow outlook, to convey to the global public that there’s a lot more going on out there on the high seas and that we’re all complicit in it. His multi-award-winning series of articles, entitled The Outlaw Ocean, put the lawlessness of the high seas into the public eye. His investigations turned into a four-year long endeavour, which led him from the Southern Ocean to Somalia.

When we pick up a can of tuna in the supermarket, we rarely question how this fish that was caught on the other side of the world manages to end up fresh on our shelves at such a cheap price. When customers do have concerns it is normally of the environmental impact. But the human cost is not often considered.

“That’s one of the things I hoped to address in the reporting,” says Urbina. “To try, as much as possible, to position the reporting at the intersection of the two different types of concerns and how they interact with each other. Quite often, starting with the humans and moving to the marine environment.”

Correlations between environmental crimes and human rights abuses came up time and time again during his reporting. Degradation of marine ecosystems and abuse of vulnerable workers go hand in hand all over the globe, from the Falkland Islands to the South China Sea. Urbina explains how large, industrial vessels, which are “over-efficient at pulling fish out of the water extract the resources to an unsustainable degree and at an unsustainable pace. Along those shores the fish stocks collapse and the local, artisanal, subsistence economies that depend on that for domestic consumption crater.” These factory ships force the smaller local vessels to go further and further from shore just to catch enough fish to break even. The cost of fuel is the biggest expenditure for these vessels, so these companies and captains start looking for other ways to save money. “They switch to migrant labour, to trafficked labour, they use manning agencies, these employment agencies that are really abusive but can save them a buck,” Urbina adds. The reckless and unfettered fishing practices that are deployed lead to broken ecosystems and diminished fish stocks which, in turn, leads to a proliferation of human rights abuses, trafficking and slavery.

In order to document the horrific conditions that occur on these fishing vessels Urbina had to endure some of the most dangerous and gruelling reporting. The journey took him to the South China Sea, one of the regions where trafficked labour and sea slavery is most rampant and on to transhipment vessels, which ply their trade hundreds of nautical miles from land and are notorious for labour abuses.

“These vessels don’t come back to shore,” Urbina explains. “They just keep fishing and a mothership comes out to supply them with more fuel, parts, men and food, and then the mothership brings the fish back to shore. But the fishing vessel stays out there for two, sometimes three years.” Initially, Urbina and his team planned to pay a captain to take them directly out to one of these boats but quickly discovered it was unviable, no one was willing to go that far out. Instead they ‘hopscotched’, travelling on one ship to go the first 40 miles, after which they would get on a different ship to go 40 more miles and so on, an endeavour, which took obscene amounts of time.

Ian Urbina The Outlaw Ocean Kantang
Ian Urbina The Outlaw Ocean Somalia
Ian Urbina The Outlaw Ocean fisher at sea

Their arduous route ultimately paid off. As they approached one of the transhipment vessels Urbina recalls: “I immediately knew this was the vessel. This was the one we needed. You can just tell from the guys, the conditions and the ship. If they let us on board this is our protagonist.” Once on board, the hideous reality that these fishermen had to live and work in was worse than could be imagined. The crew slept on hammocks made of fishing nets dangling only just off the floor to avoid the scuttling cockroaches. Having no hammock, Urbina decided to brave the floor but was quickly awoken by rats crawling over him. These sleeping quarters doubled up as a ventilation shaft for the engine, which pumped out noxious fumes as they slept.

The crew members were almost entirely Cambodian, some as young as 15. Many of them had been trafficked from their home villages and incurred huge debts just to secure this job that they were now toiling to repay. The crew were tight-lipped about their treatment at the hands of the pistol-wielding bosun, but investigations revealed horrifying stories of what life is like on these deep-sea fishing vessels. Physical and sexual abuse left many of the migrant workers quivering in fear every night. The fishermen would stay at sea for years on end, interspersed by sojourns on ‘prison islands’– small deserted atolls in the South China Sea where they would be left with only a fishing rod whilst the boat was repaired back at port.

By far the most upsetting tale of abuse and servitude is that of Lang Long. Urbina remembers the image of a “shirtless, emaciated man huddled with a rusty metal shackle around his bruised neck and a three-foot chain anchoring the collar to a post”. When Urbina met the 33-year-old Cambodian he had been rescued by the Stella Maris charity, which assists seafarers around the globe. They had bought his freedom from his captain and captor. His story of being sold to a ship for $530 and kept captive for three years was published on the front page of the New York Times. It gained such traction that the Thai federal police set up a special unit to pursue the captain who had sold Lang Long and other similar cases. John Kerry, then the US secretary of state, also championed the case and recounted the story in numerous speeches on the need to end trafficking.

This was only the beginning of the impact that The Outlaw Ocean series would have. In the US it was cited in two bills that eventually passed through the senate, aiming to restrict human trafficking at sea. Investigations and prosecutions in countries as far flung as Sao Tome & Principe and the Seychelles were spurred on by these stories. The powerful effect that they have had is testament to Urbina’s belief that “the mission of investigative journalism is to find things that are broken, which cry out for fixing.”

Ian Urbina The Outlaw Ocean southern ocean
Ian Urbina The Outlaw Ocean hammocks

But unlike on land, where evidence of criminality leads to investigations, prosecutions and jail, many of the crimes committed on the high seas go unresolved. Even murder. The journey of one mobile phone found in the back of a taxi in Fiji attests to this. A source at Interpol tipped off Urbina about a 10 minute 26 second video that showed the slow-motion slaughter of unarmed men in the water. They were shot from the deck of a fishing vessel a man with a semi-automatic weapon, before the perpetrators posed for selfies. Urbina aimed to find justice for the innocent, unarmed men floating hopelessly in the water. He made good progress and identified the private maritime security firm that was involved and the names of the ships and owners. The mantle was then taken on by a National Geographic documentary team who went on to name the captain and some of the victims. A compelling case was building. But, Urbina explains, “still to this day that captain has not been charged. No one has been charged in the crime, no company has been fined, even though we named them.”

Out in international waters jurisdictions and laws are murky. It is hard to point the finger at any one country or organisation who should be prosecuting these crimes. Urbina explains: “This is because these boats are not in any nations territory, because it’s on the high seas. It’s also this weird entity whereby its flagged so the laws that apply are from one country, the captain is from another country, it’s port is a third country, it’s crew are from two other countries and its destination is yet another country. So, if something happens to one of those crew members, they are probably very poor, from a developing nation and have zero access to lawyers, human rights workers or journalists, who would step up on their behalf. If one of those guys gets killed, gets raped, loses an arm, doesn’t get paid, who is actually going to do anything on their behalf? Even if there is someone who takes up that case, who do they go after? The  insurer? The flag registry? The ship owner? The port authority at arrival or departure?”

Over the course of his investigation Urbina’s calls to flag registries in Taiwan, Fiji and Eritrea, where the ships involved where registered, were never answered. He lamented that if these organisations don’t answer the New York Times after accusations of murder are published on the front page, then what chance do the relatives of these victims, who are often illiterate and from rural, isolated locales have?

The sense of blurred boundaries that sinks in beyond the site of land is something that is not restricted to national waters and articles of law but something that Urbina felt on a deeply personal level. “In my core I feel like we as individuals are never one thing,” he says. “I feel myself to be a journalist, but I’m always also a human being with ethics that I have to answer for, which may sometimes be in conflict with the journalistic rules of conduct. I’m also someone who likes to stay alive and has a lot to live for. In rare cases those three sets of priorities compete and are in tension.”

Ian Urbina The Outlaw Ocean fishing ship
Ian Urbina The Outlaw Ocean fishing ship inspection

One of those rare cases, which saw journalistic conventions fly out the window and a shift from being an impartial observer to an integral part of the story, was when Urbina was accompanying an Indonesian naval patrol hunting for foreign fishing vessels. Indonesia had banned all foreign vessels from fishing in their vast national waters. The patrol boat had spent a full day arresting 55 crew members from five Vietnamese fishing vessels, which they’d discovered in waters they claimed were Indonesian. They’d also taken the helm of these fishing boats. As they headed back to port, a distress call came through from an Indonesian naval officer on the last boat. “Help me, help me! I’m being rammed, where are you guys? They’re sinking me!”

Just before he was detained, one of the fishermen had called the Vietnamese coastguard who had dispatched a huge ship. Urbina explains: “We looped back, and we found the boat as it was about to go under. The naval officer had stopped speaking – we thought he was dead. The guys on my ship fired warning shots in the direction of the Vietnamese coastguard. The Vietnamese said that we had kidnapped their fishermen, and that they wanted them back immediately. The Indonesians responded, saying that first they needed to allow us to rescue the officer who was on that sinking ship.” As the Vietnamese didn’t speak Indonesian and vice versa, the only person who could act as an intermediary was Urbina’s translator. “These were very masculine, military guys from very patriarchal countries, and they refused to allow my female translator to be on the radio as an intermediary. So, all of a sudden, I had to be the guy in the middle with my translator whispering in my ear to negotiate. ‘First of all, don’t shoot each other please and second of all, could we negotiate a hostage swap?’”

As negotiations dragged on it became apparent that the Vietnamese were holding the Indonesian officer hostage and were playing for time as they waited for reinforcements. Meanwhile military officials in Jakarta were phoning the captain telling him to get out of there before he caused an international incident, a command that the captain was ignoring, refusing to leave a man behind. As Urbina and the captain looked down at the radar, they saw three big dots coming inbound and fast. The captain finally decided to cut his losses and turn the ship around but before he could leave the scene, everything fell to pieces. “The detainees mutinied, shoved the guards back, hoping they’re weren’t going to shoot, and they jumped overboard,” Urbina recalls. “They tried to swim to the Vietnamese vessel before they realised, it’s two storeys of steel and you can’t just climb onboard. They then swam over to the sinking fishing vessel and were clinging to it as the Vietnamese tried to get a dinghy in the water”. The captain saw the chaos as his chance to escape and raced back to Indonesian shores.

The situation was a pertinent reminder that out on the waves nothing is static or stable. Calm seas can quickly become raging tumults. A routine patrol can swiftly turn in to a standoff, and an observing journalist can find himself as the mediator between two foreign navies.

Urbina’s work is far from finished. He plans to double down on this realm and these kinds of stories. “I created a non-profit that is me and my team,” he says. “We committed to spending the next five years on a new round of these stories and essentially self-fund it all by way of small donations from individual readers and some journalistic grants.”

The new round of reporting will see him travel to The Gambia to look at the production of fishmeal; to the waters off North Korea where the squid population has collapsed and bodies have been found washing up on the shores of Japan and to Libya, to reveal the trafficking of migrants across the Mediterranean. Urbina’s reporting has started conversations in the corridors of power on addressing the legal loopholes and lack of enforcement that allow these crimes to happen. It is emblematic of the crucial role that journalism can play in exposing inequalities, atrocities and the often-silenced truths of the high seas.

Photographs courtesy of The Outlaw Ocean