The Outlaw Ocean by Ian Urbina reviewed

The Outlaw Ocean Book Cover The Outlaw Ocean
Ian Urbina
Random House UK, Vintage Publishing
July 16, 2020

There are few remaining frontiers on our planet. But perhaps the wildest, and least understood, are the world's oceans: too big to police, and under no clear international authority, these immense regions of treacherous water play host to rampant criminality and exploitation.

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 -- drawing on five years of perilous and intrepid reporting, often hundreds of miles from shore, Ian Urbina introduces us to the inhabitants of this hidden world. Through their stories of astonishing courage and brutality, survival and tragedy, he uncovers a globe-spanning network of crime and exploitation that emanates from the fishing, oil and shipping industries, and on which the world's economies rely.

Both a gripping adventure story and a stunning expose, this unique work of reportage brings fully into view for the first time the disturbing reality of a floating world that connects us all, a place where anyone can do anything because no one is watching.

The Outlaw Ocean is by Ian Urbina who is a journalist. This book contains a series of his reports about the Oceans and the law (or rather lack of it). He has spent several years investigating these topics and compiling this wide ranging book. The oceans are dangerous places and Ian himself has faced dangers while making these reports. Frequently there is no real authority fin these remote places and equally no one to police them even if any authority was clear. While the oceans are dangerous much of the danger here comes from those who work on it. Frequently they exploit both it and fellow humans.

I enjoyed so much of The Outlaw Ocean.  It would be tempting to go through it chapter by chapter.  However that would simply spoil the book for other readers.  For this review I will simply mention two or three of the chapters that I found particularly interesting.

The book starts and ends with stories about the environmental action group Sea Shepherd.  In the  first one two Sea Shepherd boats are chasing a “wanted” fishing boat starting in the Antarctic and then going where the fishing boat runs too.  Frankly it read quite like a thriller and was an excellent start.  The second looks at their activities in 2016 trying to stop the Japanese whaling fleet despite there being an injunction against them – again an excellent story.  However in these stories and the others in the book the author uses the context of the story to look at the more global issues as well as the specifics.  He also generally manages to maintain a fairly even stance too although that is simply not possible in some cases.  Few aspects of this are simply black or white – Ian draws this out very well in my opinion.

An intriguing story in The Outlaw Ocean is about Women on Waves.  The organisation has a small boat.  They land in largely Catholic countries, collect women who want an abortion and sail until they are outside the 12 mile limit.  This means that they are in international waters and so assisting women in having a medical abortion is not illegal.  The boat has an Austrian flag and so that also allows activity that would potentially be illegal otherwise.  This report allows the author to continue exploring the nature of “flags” of vessels including flags of convenience and the nature of maritime laws – a constant theme here.  Broadening this out means the author considers the effect this behaviour – providing abortions – may have on the countries concerned by stimulating dialogue.

I find it so hard to simply find one more interesting story in this collection.  So many interesting things are covered by this book that I think I’ll just make a few points of interest.

  • There are a number of stories about the sheer cruelty with which crew are treated.  There are bizarre approaches to legality of what is done commercially and what is “allowed” by countries or turned a blind eye to.
  • The “good guys” can be very hard to identify sometimes.  If we still continue to kill whales what should we do about whales who have learnt to strip long line catches as fishermen reel them in – the costs are significant.
  • What are the “economics” of stowaways – the costs to vessels can be high and that can lead to some troubling practices.  How about the transporting of people arrested by boat rather than by plane – what might happen during extended sea voyages that could not happen any other way.
  • There is time with the “repo” men who try and get ships back for people who are owed money – fascinating.

While maybe more than I intended to say when I started this review these points are simply a window into a fascinating book.  There was not a single chapter that did not hold my attention.

It also felt like time travel as I witnessed things – piracy, whaling, slavery, privateers – that I had previously assumed were safely locked in the past“.  In many ways this quote sums up this book for me.

The Outlaw Ocean should certainly make us think.  It would be all too easy to say that this is not our problem.  However it is our actions that lead to the abuse of both oceans and the people who work or are forced to work on them.  One of the points that the author makes very vividly is the fact that we cannot expect to buy cheap tins of “responsibly sourced” tuna fish without someone paying a high price.  If the idea of this book interests you do read it – it is worthwhile.  4.5/5

Note – I received an advance digital copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair review