The Outlaw Ocean|
Journeys Across The Last Untamed Frontier
Knopf, 2019, 519 pp, 16 pages of color photos
and 73 b&w photos, HC, $30.00
Today's mariners are often viewed through a romantic lens: seafarers with a pioneering spirit who want to get off the grid. These are the naive views of the landlubber. The ocean has a vast workforce, over "56 million people globally work at sea on fishing boats". Working far away from land means illegal fishing; shanghaiing and slave labor are alive and well. Ian Urbina holds us unflinchingly close to the fact that life at sea is dangerous; not from the sea itself, but from the men that take advantage of the murky laws thirteen miles off shore. In international waters almost every law has a loophole, and any degradation to human, animal or ship can be found.
Urbina, who has won both a Pulitzer and a George Polk award derived this book from his series of reporting for the New York Times, as such each chapter reads as its own individual story. In this way the reader is able to decompress after a harrowing tale before churning on to the next. Urbina's travels are far reaching and his writing is at once anecdotal and impartial. Although most of the legal loopholes at sea seem to enable worst of human nature, sometimes they can also work for good. There is the story of Rebecca Gomperts, a feminist who helps women in untenable situations. There are stories of environmentalists battling illegal fishing and whaling.
Although the stories of ocean champions are heartening, they are unfortunately in the minority. More often the content contains the disgusting ways that humans take advantage of those who are poverty-stricken and disenfranchised. The ocean is its own universe where law is generally what the owners and captains decree. Some fishermen who pay to work on ships are ensnared in an endless cycle of indentured servitude where even the essentials are not provided. Modern day "rafting" still exists, where stowaways are sent off to sea in a makeshift raft with no food or water. In fact often while reading I constantly had to remind myself that this is all happening now, not it in the 1800's, it seemed so anachronistic.
Urbina writes "The scope and intensity of the problems I witnessed during this reporting felt like a scandal. If the public discovered that an industry had a de facto policy of looking the other way as workers in factories around the world were routinely locked behind chained doors for weeks or sometimes months, with no freshwater or food, unpaid and given no sense when they might be permitted to go home, wouldn't there be immediate outrage, criminal investigations, and consumer boycotts? Not so at sea."
While at times these problems seem utterly too vast and hopeless to solve, Urbina's journalism shines a spotlight, we are longer be ignorant of these atrocities. Perhaps with this new awareness change will happen.