The Outlaw Ocean: Q&A with Ian Urbina | Love146
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This week, Love146 is highlighting the work of Ian Urbina, who has spent the past several years reporting on trafficking at sea – with some of the boys and girls being as young as 13. Ian Urbina is an investigative reporter for “The New York Times” based in Washington. He has received a Pulitzer, a George PolkAward in Journalism, as well as being nominated for an Emmy. Since then he’s been at sea and continuing reporting for a book titled The Outlaw Ocean. It chronicles a diversity of crimes offshore, including the killing of stowaways, sea slavery, intentional dumping, illegal fishing, the stealing of ships, gun running, stranding of crews, and murder with impunity.

Follow along on our instagram each day to hear from Ian in a series of reflections from “The Outlaw Ocean.”


We caught up with him to ask some questions about the project.

OK IAN: WHAT IS THE OUTLAW OCEAN PROJECT ABOUT?

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 ARE SOME OF THE BIGGEST TAKEAWAYS FROM THE REPORTING YOU DID FOR “THE OUTLAW OCEAN” SERIES AND THE BOOK? WHY ARE YOU INTERESTED IN THE TOPIC?

I learned about what happens at sea during a doctoral program in anthropology at the University of Chicago. I worked as an anthropologist and spent time on a ship in Singapore. I was exposed to what to me seemed like a fascinating world of transient workers who were relatively invisible to the rest of us landlubbers. From that point forward I wanted to find a way to get back into this community of workers and report further on what they do. It took me nearly 20 years to loop back to the topic but this series was my opportunity. Probably the biggest takeaway was that in journalism it often feels like there are no new topics but sometimes the most novel subject matter is hiding in plain sight. In this case, this frontier of lawlessness and beauty and intrigue happened to be spanning two-thirds of the planet.

HOW DO YOU APPROACH TALKING TO PEOPLE WHILE REPORTING?

I’m often surprised by how readily people are willing to tell me their stories, sometimes even unflattering ones. Typically, the primary barrier to getting people to open up is whether they trust you as an interviewer. I usually try to be very transparent and proactively open about why I’m interested in their story and the topic in general, and sharing some of the things I’ve heard about this topic or the specific industry. I also always try to do a fair amount of research before I enter an interview — including research that would give me some sort of fluency in that person’s perspective. That way, I can show them in a disarming way that I’ve done my homework and have a feel for what their perspective might be. These steps are usually enough to get people to relax and take me into their trust so as to convey their voice.

WHAT WAS THE MOST DIFFICULT THING YOU WITNESSED?

Perhaps the most disturbing thing I encountered was in a border town called Ranong along the border between Myanmar and Thailand. My photographer and I went there because we wanted to look into the way that karaoke bars double as brothels and how they also serve as debt traps, in the sense that migrant men are trafficked from the border toward the fishing docks and sometimes they are held in rooms in karaoke bars. They are often encouraged to run up tabs — interacting with the migrant women, some of them girls, who work there. These migrant men are encouraged to drink and have sex and at the end of a stint they are presented with a considerable tab. Having thought these amenities were on the house since the traffickers (labor brokers) who carry them are the ones who put them there,, these tabs are then used to further put the men into debt bondage. The hardest thing that I witnessed was in the karaoke bar in Ranong. A girl who could not have been older than 12 was presented to me and my photographer for sale — not just in the sense of providing sexual services, but actually the very person of the girl was offered for us to buy. It was one of those moments that when I realized this was a genuine offer and how vulnerable and young that girl was, I was just shocked at the depravity of it all.

WERE YOU EVER SCARED?

The conditions on the fishing ships where I spent a lot of time worried me more
than the people I encountered. 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 500-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.

IS THERE A CONNECTION WITH ALL THESE MAJOR ISSUES AT SEA?

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’s happening there. All of these problems are also connected in 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 percent 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 percent of everything travels by ship, 50 percent of our oxygen is from the ocean, and 70 percent of the protein we consume comes from the ocean: we are deeply dependent on the ocean.

FROM YOUR EXPERIENCE, WHAT WOULD BE THE MOST EFFECTIVE STEPS IN CHANGING THESE ISSUES?

There needs to be more rules, more proactive enforcement of those rules, and more awareness of what’s happening out there in our communities.


Visit www.theoutlawocean.com to learn more.

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