The Grim Reality of the Cruel Seas


Ian Urbina, The Outlaw Ocean (Alfred A. Knopf, 2019)

Philosophers ask the essential questions — who are we, where do we come from, why are we here? President John Kennedy eloquently summed up one answer while in Newport, “we are joined by a common interest in the sea… when we go back to the sea, whether to sail or watch it, we are going back from whence we came.” This allure of the ocean has inspired authors, poets, and songwriters for millennia, and their works fill entire sections of libraries and bookstores. There is a romance to the ocean, as anyone who has sailed upon it understands. Whether it is the calmness in sailing a sloop at a steady six knots off the coast of Maine, kayaking among dolphins, or watching the sun set over the Indian Ocean as your cruiser heads east toward home after a long deployment, we sometime accept that the sea is a comforting mystery. What we know so little about is appealing. But there is an ignorance that hides an appalling reality. Carl Sandburg knew it and wrote about it in his poem “Young Sea”:

They love the sea,
Men who ride on it
And know they will die
Under the salt of it

Writers and readers at War on the Rocks and other national security outlets generally (and understandably, due to the nature of their work) focus on the practical matters related to the oceans, particularly as the stage for international affairs and naval warfare. This includes the development of navies, the race for influence, state-on-state conflict, accidents, and operations against non-state actors. The sea is the setting for territorial expansion, threatening gestures, the brinksmanship of war, the actuality of war. This is for good reason. With so much of the world covered by water, and so much of the population living by its shores, the sea became the bearer of ancient ships of war as soon as it began to carry trade. The sea remains the conduit for the majority of the world’s commerce. Its waters provide the economic lifeblood of the world. And because of that, it commands the attention of economists and navalists alike.



National security experts correctly discuss contemporary threats upon the ocean. Those threats are ever-present. However, aside from the interruption of commerce and temporary military engagements, there are activities on the high seas that receive scant attention. But those reasons are no less critical to security and stability on the high seas or among coastal communities. Each reason may be deemed either minor or insignificant to national security, but taken as a whole they are growing threats to the people who work the sea and those who don’t. They pose more questions than answers in international affairs and commerce. They are largely ignored. Even if the issues are brought to light, the sea is far away from courts and law enforcement.

We are a consumption-driven society, more concerned with what we have than how it arrived. We want seafood, but don’t realize that “one of every five fish on dinner plates is caught illegally,” nor do we understand the working conditions under what amounts to human slavery aboard some of those ships. We enjoy first-world pleasures of cruise ships ignorant of the “magic pipes” that are designed for pumping waste directly into the sea. We accept ignorance without question perhaps because it is not the place of the general population. We accept laws that seem to protect cargo more than the people who deliver it.

When you peer over the side of a navy ship and see a child’s sandal floating miles off the coast of Sumatra after a tsunami and that it represents only one life among a quarter million lost, you realize that the old line is true, that the sea never gives up its dead. It sweeps in and over the stories that each of those quarter million people might have told. While the sea may enable certain activity, it is not the cause. It isn’t only the sea that conceals what happens. The fault, instead, is with the people who best understand the lawlessness of the sea. It is the least humane and sometimes the least human who exploit the loopholes, who take advantage of the legal darkness that only the sea provides. “With all its breathtaking beauty, the ocean is also a dystopian place, home to dark inhumanities.” They are the human traffickers, the modern-slavers, violators of child labor and children themselves on ships or brothels with trafficked minors that serve the sailors, and it is the illegal fishing vessels that scoop up marine life like strip mining on land. Strikingly, “by 2015 about ninety-four million tons of fish were caught each year, more than the weight of the entire human population.”

Nor is overfishing the only challenge to marine life sustainability. Plastic is accumulating in patches in the Pacific Ocean. Plastic debris is evident even in the most restricted of areas. For example, Guantanamo Bay Naval Base has several beaches (less typically Caribbean sand beaches than pebble-strewn strips of land.) On a weekly basis, different military groups conduct what are essentially FOD walks — where on a navy ship with aircraft a line of sailors will walk the flight deck abreast to pick up loose debris that would interfere with flight operations. Like an aircraft carrier or military runway, soldiers, sailors, and airmen would pick up waste — mostly plastic such as toothbrushes, bottles, caps, footwear, etc. After filling multiple bags, the beach was clean; that is, until the next morning, when nearly as much plastic waste had washed ashore. As near as I could tell, based on the bottle labels, it was less from passing cruise ships than the currents from nearby Haiti and Santo Domingo.

Ian Urbina wrote his book, The Outlaw Ocean, based on a lengthy series of investigative reports in the New York Times. After 40 months, 251,000 miles, and 12,000 nautical miles, going to some of the most inhospitable and dangerous maritime environments, Urbina has produced a significant work that establishes him as part Richard Henry Dana, part Upton Sinclair. Here readers will follow along as Urbina embeds on fishing trawlers, environmental activist ships, and private security floating armories, climbs aboard the alleged sovereign territory of Sealand, and tracks down maritime crime ashore. Every chapter is a self-contained story of crime or activities that fall in the gray zone, particularly with regard to the difficulty of states collecting data, investigating crime, or failing to prosecute actors on the high seas.

In one of the most harrowing accounts, Urbina travels to Somalia to embed on a patrol boat, where he tells of the Puntland Maritime Police Force and the Somali Security Service. The latter operated, he writes, in a way that “when it caught illegal fishing vessels, the [Somali Security Service] was allowed to keep half of any fines that the Puntland government was able to levy.” Although this was the first time I had heard of the Somali Security Service, it was not the first time I had heard of the concept. In January 2009, I was aboard Blackwater’s ship, the McArthur, interviewing Erik Prince about his plans for convoys protecting commerce from Somali pirates. His eventual plan was to move beyond protection and provide coastal security along the Somali coastline under a similar financial structure as the Somali Security Service by fining illegal fishing trawlers.

In an all-too-brief postscript, Urbina offers recommendations for mitigating the challenges on the world’s oceans. Some of the reasonable regulatory recommendations include better protection of mariners, making our food supply chains more transparent, and monitoring and investigating offshore crimes. But while these recommendations are reasonable, readers of The Outlaw Ocean will also sense the difficulty in achieving them. Laws and regulations are easy. Devoting the resources to enforcing them is exponentially more difficult. In space, no-one can hear you scream. At sea, no-one seems to care.

There are two stories in The Outlaw Ocean. The first, as described above, is the collection of sea stories bringing awareness to the public. The second is personal. We owe a debt to the author, who went to some of the most unfriendly and hostile places in the world at significant risk — as great reporters do. His work is a testimony to the trade of real journalism, not the Washington-centric major cable media channels competing for the loudest voice regnant in today’s political arena. Urbina’s editors at the New York Times thus deserve much credit for supporting his lengthy efforts to research and tell these stories. Urbina’s reporting in the book is also refreshingly literary.

Early in the book, Urbina notes his regret at having left a doctoral program after five years. His regret ought to be allayed by this product, as it is far more literary, informative, and relevant than many dissertations that will be read by a committee and then neatly tucked away on a library shelf. So too is his concern later in the book where, during one of a number of dangerous situations in which he found himself, he realizes “the fear I most suffered … the more I witnessed riveting and urgent moments in this reporting, the more I worried that I would not be able to live up to them in my writing.” There should be no regrets or fears for Urbina. He has produced an important work that will be the standard for understanding the outlaw ocean.



Cdr. Claude Berube, U.S. Navy Reserve, PhD is a contributing editor at War on the Rocks. His sixth book will be published in early 2021. The views expressed are his own and not those of the U.S. Navy or Naval Academy. Twitter @cgberube

Image: U.S. Navy (Photo by Command Master Chief Jose Ramiro)