High seas, high stakes, high crimes

The High Seas are a lawless frontier, dominated by gritty characters and urgent concerns. The Outlaw Ocean Project has shed light on the world’s oceans for over eight years through reporting at sea on all seven oceans and more than three dozen countries. Following the release of the new Outlaw Ocean Podcast, Pulitzer-Price-winning journalist and director of the Outlaw Ocean Project, Ian Urbina, sits down with Oceanographic to talk about the new podcast and his years at sea. 

An interview with Ian Urbina
Photographs by Fábio Nascimento
Additional photographs by Hannah Reyes Morales

The Outlaw Ocean podcast, created by the non-profit journalism organisation The Outlaw Ocean Project, sheds light on one of the few remaining frontiers on our planet: the world’s oceans. The seven-part weekly series, hosted by Ian Urbina, looks into a gritty and lawless realm rarely seen, populated by traffickers and smugglers, pirates and mercenaries, wreck thieves and repo men, vigilante conservationists and elusive poachers, seabound abortion providers, clandestine oil dumpers, shackled slaves and cast-adrift stowaways.

Oceanographic Magazine (OM): Congratulations on the new podcast. How did you come up with the idea?

Ian Urbina (IU): Thank you. During the eight years I’ve been reporting on the High Seas, I assembled an extensive library of audio and field recordings. Listening to it, I realised this material had the potential to originate an immersive audio documentary series.

OM: The Outlaw Ocean – what is it all about?

IU: The Outlaw Ocean is a journalistic exploration of lawlessness at sea around the world. The project’s goal is to increase a sense of urgency by raising awareness and broadening the public’s understanding of what happens at sea, both above and below the waterline. This reporting touches on a diversity of abuses ranging from illegal and overfishing, arms trafficking at sea, human slavery, gun running, intentional dumping, murder of stowaways, thievery of ships and other topics.

OM: What’s the scariest situation you have found yourself on the High Seas? What happened?

IU: It was the conditions on the fishing ships on which I spent a lot of time that worried me the most. These are industrial settings and there is loads of heavy equipment. Fifteen-foot swells often climbed the sides of these ships, clipping the crew (and my photographer and I) below the knees. Ocean spray and fish innards made the floor skating-rink slippery. Seesawing erratically from the rough seas and gale winds, the deck was an obstacle course of jagged tackle, spinning winches, and tall stacks of five-hundred-pound nets.

OM: And the most positive situation?

IU: If by positive we mean journalistically fulfilling, I might offer a surprising answer: boarding Chinese squid jiggers on the high seas near the Falkland Islands and the Galapagos Islands. To my knowledge, no Western journalist has ever been able to spend time on one of these ships owned by China. This accomplishment was fulfilling journalistically because it allowed me to spend several hours talking to Chinese workers and touring their living, sleeping, and working conditions. China as a country and Chinese workers are often treated simplistically and as a monolith. My goal was to see inside this internally contradictory and otherwise impenetrable topic and try to show Chinese fishing workers with humanity and nuance. Only by getting on board, these ships was this possible.

OM: What are the biggest issues in the High Seas in your opinion?

IU: All the issues on the High Seas, whether they’re human rights abuses or environmental crimes, stem from a core problem, which is a lack of governance. Specifically, there are three ways in which crimes happen offshore routinely and with impunity: too few rules, a lack of enforcement, and insufficient awareness among landlubbers of what is happening there.

OM: What needs to be done on an international, and on a personal level to combat these?

IU: On a personal level, our communities need to be more aware of what is happening out there. This means supporting journalism about this realm because that reporting keeps intense light on these issues. Also, follow and support, financially or otherwise, the organisations that are on the front and tackling these issues. Everyone can affect pressure by factoring in these concerns when they choose what they eat, who they support, and who they vote for.

On an international level, I have attempted to answer that question more broadly here. Advocates, law enforcement and researchers have suggested the following four steps: Report violence. Human rights researchers suggest that shipowners and crews should be legally obligated to report crimes at sea. The resulting data should not be held privately by insurance companies or flag registries but be made available to the public.

Regulate registries. Ships on the high seas obey the rules of the countries whose flags they fly. Flags of convenience, also called flag registries, often provide cover for illegal behavior including violence against or between crew. Seafood companies should require that the fishing ships supplying them only fly the flags with strictest accountability and transparency standards.

Ban transshipment. Forced labor and violent crime is more common on fishing ships that stay at sea longer, which is enabled by transshipment, whereby supply vessels carry catch back to shore so that fishing boats can keep working. Forcing ships back to shore sooner helps limit forced or trafficked labor, and enables companies and governments to spot-check for violence or abysmal working conditions.

Monitor manning agencies. Seafood buyers and fishing companies should clean up their supply chains by requiring the manning agencies that recruit, pay and transport their crew to produce digital copies of contracts indicating wages and prohibiting common trafficking tactics like debt bondage, up-front recruitment fees or passport confiscation.

OM: Why are podcasts and immersive storytelling such powerful mediums to foster change?

IU: I believe audio allows people to experience news stories in a more visceral way, not just for its storytelling. And since the concerns we’re covering are deeply emotional, it matters that the story is felt, not just understood.

OM: Episode 2 takes a further look at illegal fishing activities. What needs to be done to tackle this issue better?

IU: Unfortunately, fish caught illegally are sold all over the world. One in five fish that ends up on American plates is illegal. But several big policy steps could greatly reduce the problem of illegal fishing. To end government subsidies would decrease the overcapacity and slow down the depletion o fish being taken from the sea. Seafood companies could require traceability so that they and their consumers would know every player handling the fish from bate to plate. Banning industrial fishing on all, if not a portion, of the high seas would force fishing fleets to operate in areas that can be better managed and inspected by governments near the shore, while also enabling fish stock in the high seas to replenish. And ending transshipment would remove one way that fish laundering and sea slavery occur more rapidly.


The Outlaw Ocean Podcast is created and produced by The Outlaw Ocean Project. From CBC Podcasts and the L.A. Times. Listen to it here. 

Photographs by Fábio Nascimento
Additional photographs by Hannah Reyes Morales