- File Size: 106526 KB
- Print Length: 513 pages
- Publisher: Knopf (August 20, 2019)
- Publication Date: August 20, 2019
- Sold by: Random House LLC
- Language: English
- ASIN: B07LDT75YD
- Text-to-Speech: Enabled
- Word Wise: Enabled
- Lending: Not Enabled
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #41,144 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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From the Publisher
—The Washington Post
"This body of work is a devastating look at the corruption, exploitation, and trafficking that thrive on the open ocean... The writing is straightforward but clever... Eerie and beautiful."
"The Outlaw Ocean is enriched by Urbina’s gifted storytelling about the destruction of marine life and the murder, crime, and piracy that make the seas so dangerous for those who make their living on them."
—The National Book Review
"What we learn from Urbina’s journeys is nothing less than the deepest aspects of humanity itself. Dropped into a world without terra firma’s systems and foibles, our darkest impulses emerge. But our most noble intentions—to save, to protect, to establish fair rule of law—appear as well."
“In The Outlaw Ocean, Urbina focuses that eye on understanding his characters and their context to show why these crimes get committed and why the culprits rarely get prosecuted. Urbina goes further than most to do this. He shows you a problem from the front lines, by talking to the people there.”
"The most valuable contribution of The Outlaw Ocean may be to the literature, unfortunately quite extensive by now, of pessimism about human nature…in aggregate his stories reveal that something like a Hobbesian state of nature still exists and is available to anyone willing to float a few dozen miles offshore.”
—The Wall Street Journal
“The Outlaw Ocean is an outstanding example of investigative journalism, illuminating some of the darkest corners of a world we often don't think about… what he found ranges from horrible to shocking and from unfair to unbelievable… a magnificent read… proof that outstanding writing is still one of the best tools we have to get to know the world we live in.”
—Gabino Iglesias, NPR
“These chapters are vibrant as individual stories, but as a collection they’re transcendent, rendering a complex portrait of an unseen and disturbing world. Urbina pursues a depth of reportage that’s rare because of the guts and diligence it requires… The result is not just a fascinating read, but a truly important document… It is a master class in journalism.”
—Blair Braverman, The New York Times Book Review
“Not just a stunning read, this book is a gripping chronicle of the watery wild west and it shows us—frankly unlike anything I've read before—how global indifference can trap innocent people in endless cycles of exploitation, how the vast ocean has become a danger zone, and ultimately how we all pay a price for this mayhem and mistreatment."
—John Kerry, former Secretary of State and founder of the Our Ocean Conference
“Imagine a fantasy movie in which an explorer from Earth arrives on the surface of a living planet, to discover a lawless place where brutality is the only order and greed and fear the only motivators. Welcome to The Outlaw Ocean. In this utterly groundbreaking, often disturbing book, Ian Urbina has put his life on the line to lay bare the stunning inhumanity that reigns unchecked over two-thirds of Earth’s surface. This constantly astonishing book is seasoned with rare heroes—the author himself among them—who at great risk have weaponized their lifelong quest to shine righteous light and apply justice to the cruel anarchy that reigns over the majority of the planet.”
—Carl Safina, author of Beyond Words and Song for the Blue Ocean
“Our planet is 70% ocean and yet to watch the tv or read the papers you'd have little idea humans ever ventured offshore. Thanks to Ian Urbina for beginning to close the reporting gap, and for showing the high drama to be found on the high seas."
—Bill McKibben, author of Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?
"A swift-moving, often surprising account of the dangers that face sailors and nations alike on the lawless tide."
“In The Outlaw Ocean, Ian Urbina offers a gripping series of portraits of scofflaws, renegades, con men, vigilantes and activists whose combat on the open seas has profound effect on our everyday lives and the world we inhabit. It’s a wild adventure story and terrifying cautionary tale, that should not be missed.”
— Sam Walker, former deputy enterprise editor of The Wall Street Journal and author of The Captain Class
"This is just incredible investigative work."
—Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything
How lawlessness and ignorance are harming our oceans
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By Alyssa Rosenberg
Opinion writer September 12
Alyssa Rosenberg writes about culture and politics for The Washington Post’s Opinions section.
Fish swim in a reef near La Ciotat, France. Ian Urbina argues that most of us don’t know much about what takes place in and around the oceans, from overfishing to slavery. (BORIS HORVAT/AFP/Getty Images)
The remote is now very near: Mount Everest has traffic jams, and Instagram influencers are posing at Chernobyl. The Google Car maps where we live, photographing our homes usually when the lawn is unkempt. The world has never felt smaller or more known, for good and ill.
Into that world comes Ian Urbina’s “The Outlaw Ocean” bearing an unsettling idea: There is still much we don’t know about our world, and the consequences of our ignorance are likely to arrive onshore not in a gentle swell but with crashing force. Urbina argues that the vast oceans and their borders with land are changing more quickly than we can imagine. The wide expanses of the sea are ungoverned, if not ungovernable, because it benefits too many powerful people to let them stay that way. The result is a book that leaves behind the unnerving feeling that we’re becalmed and can move in no positive direction: “The Outlaw Ocean” brings the reader up close to an overwhelming truth, but the magnitude of the revelation is paralyzing.
The book grew out of Urbina’s reporting about the sea for the New York Times, and as a result, it is constructed as a series of seafaring yarns. The installments vary wildly in tone, as you might expect in the nautical genre of storytelling. Max Hardberger, a raffish oceanic repo man, stars in Urbina’s heist story. Offshore abortionist Rebecca Gomperts helps women in an outlaw feminist fable. Captains Adam Meyerson and Wyanda Lublink are the book’s environmentalist Ahabs, chasing down not a fearsome whale but a Japanese ship that slaughters whales in exceptionally brutal fashion. And men like Lang Long, a Cambodian who was trafficked and sold into the Thai fishing industry, are modern-day Billy Budds in a system that lacks even the rough justice of a drumhead court-martial.
That Urbina has been able to pluck these people out of the vast blue expanse that surrounds them and locate them, both on the map and in our minds, at least for a moment, is an impressive feat of reporting. (It’s also to his credit that Urbina knows how to serve as a gangway between his reader and his subject material without making himself the story.) While all nonfiction books presumably exist to tell readers something they didn’t already know, “The Outlaw Ocean” uses our lack of knowledge to bolster his argument: If we don’t know much about sea slavery or the battles between environmentalists and the fishing industry, it’s because it’s hard for us landlubbers to know what happens so far from shore.
This isn’t the only sense in which Urbina has constructed his book as a kind of inexorable current, circling around and around again. Though it certainly has its lighter segments, especially Urbina’s visit to the Principality of Sealand, a micronation founded in 1967 on an abandoned offshore platform, his stories keep converging on a grim point: that the vastness of the ocean has served the purposes of governments and businesses that prefer to operate in a realm without rules.
There are exceptions, like the tiny island nation of Palau, which is trying to curb illegal fishing through quirks of maritime law that give it dominion over 230,000 square miles of ocean. But apparently, there are plenty of powerful people who stand to benefit from the lawless state of the ocean — and plenty more of us who so badly want to believe that we can have cheap, ethically harvested seafood that we’re willing to let them keep it that way. That may be difficult to do after reading “The Outlaw Ocean.” Urbina’s chronicles of man’s inhumanity to man, as well as to fish — some of which leave the creature in “Jaws” looking less like a monster and more like a justified revolutionary — had me considering giving up seafood.
Urbina is so successful at communicating the scale of the ocean, and the cruelty and neglect above and below its waters, that reading his book sometimes feels like gasping for a breath of air before slipping under the waves again.
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The book starts from a very interesting place: Most of the Earth's surface is covered by oceans not land, but while every bit of that land is part of one country or another, and is administered by internationally-recognized governments, the vast oceans really don't "belong" to any country, and the administration of them (e.g. laws) is unclear or non-existent. This gives a lot of scope for investigation and reporting on a subject that has had little or no coverage, and thus makes for an interesting subject area.
The author is a reporter for the NY Times, and this book apparently consists of (or is derived from) articles that he has written for that publication over the past few years. Thus the subtitle of "Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier." Among the chapters are several accounts of the author's hair-raising foreign travels and encounters with various foreign government "officials", often in places where the words "good" and "government" don't go together, mainly in SE Asia and Africa. So as a travelogue, I found the book to be an entertaining read.
But my enjoyment was tempered to an increasing degree by several things:
- Much of the author's investigations focus on illegal fishing and on human rights abuses on many (most?) of the SE Asian fishing boats. These are both big problems for sure, but over and over we find the author riding on boats from Greenpeace, Sea Shepherd and similar organizations, which immediately illustrates a bias in my opinion. Especially when he reports about the vigilante tactics used by these organizations, some of which happened before his very eyes and were reported by him in this book, but he gives those tactics his tacit approval, apparently because he thinks they are OK because nobody else is doing anything about some of these issues. This is wrong.
- Although the author has traveled widely and extensively to a lot of exotic and dangerous locales, he still seems amazed at finding corruption and other behavior that don't conform to his (and most others in the Western world) ethical standards. Apparently he's never lived in a non-Western culture (as I have), and thus expects everyone in the world to conform to our customs and norms. I'm not condoning corruption in any form, but not every culture agrees on exactly what is right or wrong or somewhere in between, and I can tell you for sure that if you were born into and had to live in much of Africa or SE Asia, one might not always see things the same way as a reporter from NY and DC sees it. The only solution the author hints at seems to be more action by the UN or other "world" organization.
- I can accept diverse viewpoints such as the ones I mention above, but where the author TOTALLY lost me was in how he completely ignores China's maritime activities and illegal claims. In the chapter titled "Fluid Borders", he witnesses a maritime encounter between government ships from Indonesia and Vietnam over ocean territory that is claimed by both countries, and uses it to illustrate that the while country borders are pretty clear on land, there is a lot of disagreement over who "owns" pieces of ocean that are offshore of any given country. The author puts a lot of focus on Indonesia and Vietnam, but just briefly mentions China, saying "while it's easy to portray China as the villain in this jockeying for control, the truth is that other countries, including Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines, are engaged in the same geopolitical scramble to expand their territorial claims in the South China Sea." REALLY??? Has the author never hear of China's infamous "Nine Dash Line" and how they are using it to claim virtually all of the South China Sea, right up to the shores of the countries he names? This is not a "truth" at all. Shame on the author for condoning China's arrogant and dangerous claims. And why didn't he investigate any of the island-building that China is doing there, to the detriment of the environment (which the author otherwise is very protective of)? Perhaps he's afraid of China?
This last item in particular causes me to call into question the objectivity of the author, and unfortunately turned what might have been a most interesting book into merely an incomplete and somewhat biased travelogue. Too bad.
For all the valid concerns about how the US drops the ball as far as enviornmentalism, the reality is we're way beyond most other countries, especially those dealt with here. Fisherman from Cambodia, Thailand, Somalia, etc., are living in the 'right now.' They have no concerns about overfishing because they can't worry about next month. It's one more price that seven billion people will have to pay for our rapaciousness. Because, while the US is good about it (sort of) in our backyard, our consumption certainly affects the rest of the world.
Add to this growing nations like China or anywhere in the Pacific and it's not sustainable. It will fall apart because it has too. If you ever read Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" and rethought eating hamburgers, after this book, a fish sandwich will be no better.
I knew about piracy, but I had no idea about the slave trade of fishing crews. It's all designed to maximise today's profit from an industry that will burn itself out in 50 years anyway.
Urbina's ability to embed himself with crews and situations is beyond the scope of even most war correspondents. In all his stories and research, his four years of work is very well represented. What's amazing to think about is what he wasn't able to include.
This is certainly one of the best works of first-hand, experiential journalism I've read in quite some time. In 50 years, scholars can look to it and say humanity was well warned about failures, mistakes, and certain tragedy, because it is surely on its way.
My father-in-law, a retired professor of diplomatic history and avocational lover and teacher of maritime history, spent many a long hour with me discussing the history of the world's merchant marines, pirates and trade routes.
And my beloved late step-father and his brother, both captains, taught me more than the average Jane's knowledge of the rules of the road and international maritime conventions.
Here, we have a book about (among other things) the breach of all conventions and the rapacious greed of mankind for the harvest of the seas, with no mind to the death and destruction both to sea life and the men (and sometimes women) who labor on the world's ships.
There's also a rapacious desire for power and fantasy fulfillment, and the seas have provided those, as well.
I was especially enthralled by the early chapter on the chase after Interpol-wanted fish poachers in Antarctic waters, which in one case resulted in the longest-ever (recorded, anyway) sea chase and the intentional sinking of the frigate in question, so as to destroy the evidence that might put its captain and owners behind bars. Everyone got off without much consequence, certainly not enough to restrain others from their illegal plundering of our globe's sea life.
The harvest of shark fins, coveted for soup that supposedly works as an aphrodisiac, has particularly harmed the Pacific island nation of Palau, which has also been hard hit by the changing pattern of Pacific typhoons. The sharks, in particular, control the population of reef life, and without top-tier predators, the uncontrolled population of lower fish species harms the entire food chain.
Of course the over-harvesting of sea life is not limited to predators. Sea turtles are endangered in many cases due to over-fishing. So are shrimp and krill. (The invertebrates serve as a source of food for higher fish and mammal species, just as fish serve as food for sharks, and overgrow their available resources when the sharks dwindle or disappear).
And over-harvesting occurs on the shorelines as well. Early in my career, decades ago, I covered the dwindling population of lobsters on the New England shore, and the severe consequences that ensued for the fisherman and their respective economic environs, not to mention the sea life. The same thing happened to our nation's oyster beds throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, when over-harvesting vastly reduced shellfish populations and, among other things, thereby incapacitated the waters' ability to self-clean, as it were.
Then there is tourism, which brings mindless and careless individuals, frequently from China but also from everywhere else, to the previous reefs, whose plants and other organisms are extremely vulnerable to human touch. I've seen this sort of thing with my own eyes, on a few beeches where coral reefs are very close to shore.
Despite signs everywhere telling snorkelers not to stand on or touch coral, people stand to adjust their masks and so kill the reefs for their few minutes of convenience. And reefs will continue to die unless the beaches (in this case) are closed altogether to tourists who support a big part of the economies that need them.
This book, though, focuses on crimes committed on a much greater scale, far from the eyes and ears of the world's navies or Interpol, neither of them equipped (or motivated) to tackle the problem or the intricacies of international and maritime law.
And so, fisheries continue to flounder. Wild fish populations continue to dwindle, and mountains of problems result, the world over, and continue to grow.
The conscription of laborers, largely from the Philippines but also elsewhere, used on many global fishing fleets, is so sickening it's enough to call into question the healthfulness of eating wild-caught fish. While fish may be healthful to eat, fishing is killing or starving or enslaving many of the men who catch it. They can earn as little as $4 or $5 a day to work in life threatening conditions for up to 18 or 20 hours a day. And fleet fishermen are often grossly abused.
One complaint I have on this book is the certainty with which the author insists that global climate change (which for example in the case of Palau has unquestionably wrought much damage) is the result of mankind.
Let's be honest. The world has had climate change since long before mankind arrived on the scene.
The dinosaurs of the Triassic period (from 243 to 233.23 million years ago) died off due to climate change, caused perhaps by meteor showers or perhaps by massive volcanic eruptions, in either case, by something filled the skies with debris and clouds and severely limited the amount of solar warmth that reached the earth. Hence came the ice age.
Then there were sun storms that caused all sorts of havoc throughout the ages, and we are about due for more of those. In fact, some scientists who track such events say a new cycle of storms may have started, that the worst is yet to come, and finally that we are long overdue.
We now have bores of earth's crust that prove the cyclical nature of climate change from time immemorial, again, since long before man arrived. So no, man alone did not make climate change and man can certainly not "fix" that. It's hubris to think that we can eliminate an ancient (and probably immortal) phenomenon.
Having said that, clearly man has wrecked a great deal of our seaborne wilderness, which desperately needs our assistance. Yes, it would be far preferable if the world could find a way to impose more wildlife protection of its seven seas, not to mention its shorelines.
However, governments globally obviously agree on very little and international bodies have demonstrated little aptitude to solve the problems at sea.
For example, the seas have always provided oppressors with a means to enslave or jail the underclass, to lawlessly bind men to ships where countless numbers have died, whether from disease or active malice of tyrannical captains such as the infamous 18th century British Captain William Bligh. And the seas will doubtless continue to do so.
But let us not underestimate the importance and value of the seas to global health and survival. They are not boundless nor is their wealth inexhaustible. In fact no physical resource is either boundless or inexhaustible.
[Update, 9/8/2019: Having read the August 11, 2019 review by J. Peterson of Minnesota, I feel compelled to add that I too was surprised by the author's minimization of China's outrageously hegemonic efforts in the South China Sea. Urbina pretends that the disputes over marine borders by Indonesia and Vietnam in sectors that both claim land are representative of the issues as to who "owns" offshore oceanic regions. And while I found that fascinating, I was appalled that he downplayed China's aggression at sea by claiming that "Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines, are engaged in the same geopolitical scramble to expand their territorial claims in the South China Sea."
Mr. Peterson is correct. This is nuts. China wants the whole of the South China Sea, and is by far the world's worst aggressor in what we must face is really an oceanic war. No other country except China has "built" islands in the South China Sea specifically so that it can extend its maritime borders by 12 miles from each of those man-made land masses, as well as its use of the "nine-dash line" to claim, as Mr. Peterson says, "virtually all of the South China Sea."
But in 2014, the U.S. government officially noted that references to this nine dash line to claim sovereignty over areas of open sea runs directly counter to international law.
In any case, Urbina clearly has a great deal more bias than is appropriate for any reporter. And the bias by which he let China to get "off the hook" for its genocidal behaviors pretty much everywhere, including at sea, is very serious indeed. I thank Mr. Peterson for noting that.
Clearly I was too influenced, as a reporter myself, by the courage it took for Urbina to report from ships at sea, during both storms and open water tensions and conflicts and not mindful enough of in virtually every case, not simply about climate change, but about everything.
My hat's off, too, to Stone Dog, for correctly noting that too much of this book is about the author and that too often Urbina makes himself out as a hero. It's the old "aren't I great, me, me, me" kind of reporting and towering egos of which I saw far too much during my reportorial career. Another scourge to our horrifyingly discredited profession.
Urbina does raise important issues about bondage at sea, but in hindsight given these important and worthy criticisms of the book, I herewith lower my assessment of this work, despite the reportorial courage, to two stars from four.]
Top international reviews
It must be read.
The only criticism I have of this book is that a few chapters have a stench of self-adulation about them. Especially the chapter about Somalia feels wayward compared to the other stories he tells, and focuses on his experience rather than on the stories of the people he interacted with. I understand that Somalia is a difficult place to report on, but that chapter left me disappointed.
Otherwise, an excellent read that is a must for anybody who's interested in contemporary seafaring.
So I don't want to discuss Author or Style but the content is so interesting, everyone with some interest in Oceans should read it.