An Interview with Ian Urbina
“For the past 17 years, I've been a staff investigative reporter for The New York Times. I also created a non-profit journalism organization called The Outlaw Ocean Project, which stems from a Times series and a book I wrote about human rights, labor and environmental crimes at sea.”
How would You describe Your work to a complete stranger?
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.
What forged Your interests for the Ocean and the High Seas?
I’ve been enchanted by the Sea since I was a little boy. Spending time offshore always captured my imagination. I was especially drawn to the idea of taking a ship and for weeks crossing this strange and dangerous netherworld that seemed to abide by its own laws of physics. An experience akin to space travel, but on earth. I got my chance, or so I thought, when I was in graduate school and employed as an anthropologist. I took a job on a research trip in Singapore, which, much to my annoyance, ended up never leaving port. So, as a travel experience, it offered little. But spending long days on the dock, I was exposed to the diaspora tribe of seafarers and I was struck by how distinct they were. They were colorful, clever, rutty, irreverent and generally outside the customs that us landlubbers often call law – And, truth be told, once I was exposed to the place and the people, I was hooked.
In the introduction to Your book “The Outlaw Ocean” You mention Your deep fascination for the Ocean, and how You as a Reporter at The New York Times was nudged by your Editor, to focus more on the people than on the fish, - and how You found that environmental issues would arise as well though that lens... Can You elaborate this?
I knew from the seafarers that I had met prior that there was a truly outlandish world offshore and my hope then—and over a decade later when I convinced my editor to cut me loose so I could produce the series that ran in The New York Times—was to explore and chronicle these characters: the 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.
The seas are vast. Most of that space belongs to no country. The result is there are few if any police out there. In the rare case that there are rules that apply, there is virtually no one to enforce them. What's more, when harm comes to seafarers, there is little incentive to investigate or prosecute since most of these crews are poor and with minimal leverage to hire lawyers or get the attention of government authorities. Human rights and labor abuse are rampant on the high seas, and environmental issues often arise (and are sometimes explained) by exploring the former.
How do You define innovative storytelling? And how do You find this to be a powerful tool to create change?
Innovative storytelling uses much more than just the written word – it uses all five-senses for readers to quite literally feel others, however foreign, experiences.
The Outlaw Ocean has experimented with a spin-off collaboration, The Outlaw Ocean Music Project, to combine journalism and music mediums, to convey emotion and a sense of place in an enthralling new way.
The result is a captivating body of music based on The Outlaw Ocean journalism. While reporting for 5 years at sea, I built an audio library of field recordings. It featured a variety of textured and rhythmic sounds like machine-gun fire off the coast of Somalia and chanting captive deckhands on the South China Sea. Using the sound archive and inspired by the reporting, over 400 artists from more than 60 countries produced EPs in their own interpretive musical styles -- be it electronic, ambient, classical or hip hop.
The project is a clever way to commandeer music platforms like Spotify and Amazon and turn them into news outlets.
This allows us to message Ocean issues at younger demographics, like my 16-year old son, who might not otherwise read the New York Times, but nonetheless still consumes a lot of news through alternate channels. The music project also allows us to conscript musicians from various places around the world so that they begin talking about Ocean issues.
What has been Your most eye-opening experience on the Ocean, concerning the life below?
Rather than the life within the Ocean, it was the experiences I had on the Ocean that were most eye-opening. It was the conditions on the fishing ships where I spent a lot of time that worried me most. These are industrial settings and there are 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.
Furthermore, fishing ships, particularly in the developing world, are not especially hygienic places. Cram dozens of men into a dank, confined space for months, where they are handling thousands of dead and decaying creatures day in and day out, and you can expect infections. By the time I arrived in Palau, I had already spent time on dozens of fishing boats, and I had learned that for my own safety I needed to adjust certain habits. No more nail biting; you don’t want your hands anywhere near your mouth. Even small cuts get infected quickly and severely. I stopped wearing contact lenses because putting them in and taking them out was a wobbly, germ- laden process that kept resulting in styes. Ear infections were a constant battle from the persistent moisture. Daily drops of a concoction of 50 percent vinegar, 50 percent rubbing alcohol helped manage the problem but often it stung like hell.
What do You find is important aspects for people to know about the high seas?
All of these types of abuses, whether they’re human rights abuses, or environmental crimes, stem from a core problem, which is a lack of governance at sea, especially on the high seas.
Specifically, there are three ways in which misbehavior happens offshore routinely and with impunity: too few rules, a lack of enforcement, and insufficient awareness of what is happening there. All of these problems are also connected in the sense that they occur with a certain tacit complicity from all of us who live on land.
We all are the beneficiaries of the lawlessness on the high seas, where 90% of all the products we consume comes by way of ships, and the commercial channels are usually unbothered by the government and therefore, rules. We have been able to access impossibly cheap products that arrive to our shelves with incredible speed. 90% of everything travels by ship, 50% of our oxygen is from the Ocean, and 70% of the protein we consume comes from the Ocean: We are deeply dependent on the Ocean.
With Your in-depth knowledge from years in the Field, what are Your suggestions on how we can act, both as a society and as individuals, to contribute to create a more sustainable future for the Oceans?
It's difficult to care about things that we don't know exist. Not only is there a lack of knowledge about what lives offshore, there is also a resulting lack of empathy or self interest in safeguarding the life and habitats out there. Meanwhile, this ignorance also allows entrenched misconceptions to stay entrenched. If industry argues that fish stocks can and will replenish themselves regardless of the intensity of industrial over-fishing, who's going to argue that they are wrong? If dumpers contend that sinking oil rigs offshore does more benefit than harm by providing a place for fish to hide, how can anyone prove that they are not right? And none of this touches on the possible self-interest we have at stake in exploring the oceans for the sake of discovering the cure to diseases, for example.
It is difficult but not impossible to confront this reality. Seafood may be having its moment of reckoning, not unlike what occurred previously with blood diamonds, sweat-shop garments, and dolphin-free tuna, where companies and consumers say that they are willing to accept higher prices for goods that can actually be traced from bait to plate. Admittedly, because the sea is so far from inspectors and watchful eyes, it will be difficult for companies to track their products better and publicly prove that abuses are not baked into their production process.
But if the will is there, companies and governments can accomplish this level of accountability and transparency.
Other steps include: Creating zones (often called marine protected areas or MPAs) of the ocean that are off limits to fishing or other industrial activity, stepping up port inspections of ships globally, lessening our overall demand for fossil fuels by shifting to alternative sources of renewable energy, pressing companies to shift away from single-use plastics, ending government that subsidies that are helping to put too many fishing ships on the waters – these are examples of winnable battles that help in the larger war.
You have spent so many hours on the Ocean, experienced and seen horrible things, that can be hard to comprehend is happening in this century... What is Your perspective about the future for the Oceans?
The big threats to the Oceans divide into two categories.
The first is the waste that we are putting into the Seas, including carbon emissions dissolving from the air, oil sludge released by ships’ magic pipes, plastic coming from landfills, ghost fishing gear.
The second category includes the resources that we are taking out of the Oceans (including fish at an unsustainable rate, oil and gas from under the sea floor, minerals from the sea floor, and biodiversity wasted in the form of so- called bycatch which refers to marine life caught and killed inadvertently before
being thrown overboard.)
The situation looks especially bleak if You focus on whether we can win the larger war to save the Oceans.
It's far less demoralizing and debilitating, however, if we look instead at the individual battles and just try to tackle each, one by one.