The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier

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The Outlaw Ocean:
Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier
by Ian Urbina
Alfred A. Knopf, New York
544 pages


The basic premise of The Outlaw Ocean by Ian Urbina is a riff on the classic logic problem referred to commonly as “the prisoner’s dilemma.” We have treaties that protect the oceans and the people who sail upon them. And we have enforcement protocol for these treaties. But, while collectively we have incentive to enforce the treaties — thereby protecting our collective welfare (the cleanliness and health of the oceans’ ecosystems, the health of the fish and mammals that swim in them) — no one has incentive to single-handedly enforce them. Why should one nation’s coast guard or fisheries police spend resources fighting malefactors on the high seas when there is no direct benefit to this one nation? The result is not surprising: No one enforces them, or they are enforced sparingly and in limited, largely ineffectual ways.

Ian Urbina, a journalist for The New York Times, spent four years researching and writing this important book, documenting modern-day slavery, prostitution, pillaging of the ocean’s fisheries, the unchecked slaughter of whales, quasi-legal vigilantism, and overwhelming pollution in the form of plastics and oil. Because of the layers of corporate protection and the fiction of flags of convenience, shipowners can largely do as they please, using one nation’s laws against another or simply flouting all law, domestic or international, by hiding in the vastness of the high seas and reaping the harvest with impunity.

The following passage illustrates the current predicament:

“Over the years, I’d spoken to dozens of industry consultants, lawyers, insurers and ship operators, and they often contended that the industry was not unified enough to solve problems like debt bondage, human trafficking, wage theft or seafarer abandonment. In fact, they often told me, there was no industry to speak of, certainly not one that could act efficiently or with consensus to tackle such thorny problems. There was, instead, just lots of independent ships and fleets, flying a plethora of different flags, they said. What was striking to me, however, was that when it came to issues like countering Somali piracy, resisting unions, standardizing port protocol, countering terrorism threats, or resisting measures that might put large fisheries off-limits or impose stricter pollution or wage rules, these industries were surprisingly efficient and united.

“The unfortunate truth was that, in much of the maritime world, the law protects a ship’s cargo better than its crew.”

There are a few heroes in the book, namely the intrepid marauders at the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and, surprisingly, the government and coast guard officers of Indonesia and other seafaring nations, whose recent efforts prove modestly effective at stemming illegal fishing that is often violent (and always chaotic). Toward the end of the book, Urbina concludes: “Through time, humanity’s capacity, both legally and scientifically, for extracting life from the oceans has greatly surpassed our ability to protect it.”

But the book is unavoidably nihilistic in tone and substance. Without immediate and collective action to address the urgent and myriad crises faced by our oceans, we’re all just a group of selfish prisoners, distrustful of one another, destroying our world and headed to hell together.

Categories: Good Reads