Oceans Called A 'Wild West' Where Lawlessness And Impunity Rule

Oceans Called A 'Wild West' Where Lawlessness And Impunity Rule

2:00pm Jul 29, 2015

There are about 140 million square miles of open ocean, and according to New York Times reporter Ian Urbina, much of it is essentially lawless. As Mark Young, a retired U.S. Coast Guard commander and former chief of enforcement for the Pacific Ocean, told Urbina, the maritime realm is "like the Wild West. Weak rules, few sheriffs, lots of outlaws."

All Things Considered's Audie Cornish spoke to reporter Urbina about his four-part investigation, which wrapped up Tuesday. Urbina described his time on a Thai fishing ship — a purse seiner targeting mostly jack mackerel and herring — featured in Part 3 of the series.

"The ship we spent time on had about 40 Cambodian boys, mostly, and some young men, all migrants, most of them indentured," Urbina says. "The conditions on board are extremely dangerous. This was a rat-infested, roach-infested boat. And most of these boys had been on it for more than a year."

They get little sleep, Urbina adds — just two hours at a time. The rest of the time they are fishing. There's no sanitation on board, and discipline is severe and often violent, Urbina says.

"There is a sort of cultural line that runs through the sea as a place where people have always gone to escape the law, to escape governments. It is truly the last frontier," Urbina tells Cornish. "And in some way we all benefit from the lack of rules on the high seas in that 90 percent of products we consume come to us by way of ships. And one of the reasons maritime commerce is so efficient is that there are very few rules out there. At the same time, the lack of rules I think is partly what contributes to the dire state that the seas are in: the obliteration of the fishing population, levels of pollution and now the growing levels of violence on the high seas are somewhat a result of that same concept."

For more from Urbina's harrowing reporting, listen to the interview, and read The Outlaw Ocean series here.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

There are about 140 million square miles of open ocean. And according to reporter Ian Urbina, much of it is essentially lawless.

IAN URBINA: You see everything from intentional dumping to murder to kidnapping to slavery to casting stowaways overboard.

CORNISH: Despite reams of shipping industry guidelines, maritime law and UN safety regulations, Urbina's reporting for The New York Times shows a world out of reach of law enforcement. He wraps up a four-part series today. It's called "The Outlaw Ocean." And it travels to the South China Sea. That's where some of the ocean's worst offenders trap regional migrants in conditions akin to slavery. In Thailand, they're called the ghost ships where deckhands disappear.

URBINA: The conditions were really bleak. The ship we spent time on had about 40 Cambodian boys, mostly, and some young men - all migrants, most of them indentured. And the conditions on the boat are extremely dangerous and, you know, this was a rat-infested, roach-infested boat. And most of these boys had been on there for over a year. The work is extremely dangerous and sort of around-the-clock. So the boys sleep in small, you know, patches - two hours here and two hours there. But they're fishing the rest of the time.

CORNISH: And there's - some of the photos show them sleeping, like, in hammocks just kind of hung every which way. It's very tight quarters and no real kind of sanitation.

URBINA: Yeah. And discipline is fairly severe on these boats. You know, there's a real strict hierarchy. And there's usually a crew boss who imposes the discipline. And often that discipline is quite violent. And the captain who sort of sits above on a perch, you know, in this line of fishing these - they do it mostly at night. And the boat we were on was a purse seiner. It's a certain type of boat that uses a large net. And the boys were actually getting in the water in the middle of the night. And you could very easily see how if one of them disappeared, the rest probably wouldn't notice because it's so loud and so bustling. And there's so many of them.

CORNISH: You mention the potential for someone to disappear off of one of these boats and maybe not be noticed. But it also brings me to another point in your reporting which is that murder is commonplace, right? This is not something that's reported, and it sounds like you found it to be unchecked.

URBINA: We focused on one specific egregious murder that was captured on a cell phone camera found in the back of a taxi in Fiji. And the video - quite graphic - shows, over the course of 10 minutes, four men in the water being summarily killed. You know, you have no sense of what happened before or after the 10 minute video, but it's fairly clear that this is murder because the men in the water are not a threat. And they're sort of picked off by a semiautomatic weapon. At the end, several of the crew men pose for selfies and sort of celebrate the killing and show their faces. And even still, the crime has not been solved.

CORNISH: What do you think is at stake here? I mean, there's always been a kind of storied lawlessness of the high seas - right? - in a way, romanticized. I mean, to you looking in a modern day setting, why does this matter going forward?

URBINA: There is a sort of a cultural line that runs through the sea as a place where people have always gone to escape the law, to escape government and sort of it is truly the last frontier. And in some ways we all benefit from the lack of rules on the high seas in that, you know, 90 percent of the products we consume come to us by way of ships. And one of the reasons that, you know, maritime commerce is so efficient is that there are very few rules out there. At the same time, the lack of rules I think is partly what contributes to the dire state that the seas are in. You know, the obliteration of the fishing population and the levels of pollution and now growing levels of violence on the high seas I think are somewhat a result of that same concept.

CORNISH: Ian Urbina, he reported the series "The Outlaw Ocean" for The New York Times. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

URBINA: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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