The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier – Ian Urbina

About the Book

There are few remaining frontiers on our planet. But perhaps the wildest, and least understood, are the world’s oceans: too big to police, and under no clear international authority, these immense regions of treacherous water play host to rampant criminality and exploitation.

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 — drawing on five years of perilous and intrepid reporting, often hundreds of miles from shore, Ian Urbina introduces us to the inhabitants of this hidden world. Through their stories of astonishing courage and brutality, survival and tragedy, he uncovers a globe-spanning network of crime and exploitation that emanates from the fishing, oil and shipping industries, and on which the world’s economies rely.

Both a gripping adventure story and a stunning expose, this unique work of reportage brings fully into view for the first time the disturbing reality of a floating world that connects us all, a place where anyone can do anything because no one is watching.

560 pages (hardcover)
Published on August 20, 2019
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This book was a library loan.


The Outlaw Ocean is a book I read when it first came out, and it made a huge impact on me. I actually have it on hold at the library again, because I intend on a second read for novel-writing research purposes. However, this is one of those books that I think should be widely read, because there are certain conversations that, I think, need to take place. 

The Outlaw Ocean is, first and foremost, a stunning work of journalism. Ian Urbina has always had a thing for the sea, and has worked as a journalist reporting from the world’s last true frontier for years and years. Now, before we continue on, I think all of you need a bit of a background on me. There are a list of things that nothing in the world could make me care enough to read about: Zombies, flesh-eating bugs, Oprah, and boats. And honestly, “boats” is absolutely not fourth on that list. It’s somewhere like item number one or two. I don’t honestly know why my aversion is there, but it absolutely is. 

I thought, due to that, this book would take an act of god for me to get through, and I will freely admit that the first chapter did almost nothing for me, and I nearly gave up on the book then and there, but I kept on keeping on and I was rewarded for my efforts. After that chapter, I found this book nearly impossible to put this book down. The thing is, Urbina does some incredible journalistic work here, revealing the intricacies of the ocean, the difficulty legislating out there, lax laws, and how corporations and governmental entities have figured out ways to take advantage of all the above. 

It’s a horrifying book. Slavery is still very much a thing in existence, and it seems as though one of the last bastions of slavery in this world is the ocean. Companies base their operations in countries that have lax laws and then fill their boats with, for example, boys who from various inland areas of Asia, who have never seen the ocean before, and get suckered into these impossible jobs where they are paid absolutely nothing and put their lives at risk constantly for their work. It is not unusual to see people killed, or die. It is not unusual to get a small injury, which gets infected, and then lose a limb. When asked why they keep working for these companies, they either are stuck in the job and have no way out of it, or the economy is so broken where they are from, there is literally nothing else for them to do. 

It isn’t a coincidence that this book is called The Outlaw Ocean. In truth, countries can only police so much of the ocean that surrounds their shores, and often fishing boats and the companies that power them know that. There are small wars waged between governments who want to preserve the ocean around their shores, people who try to environmentally protect our deep seas and the creatures that live in them, and those who take advantage of the very same. Vigilante environmentalists linger out in the deep ocean, reporting on practices by pirates and other deep fishing companies that seem to know exactly how to skirt the laws of numerous lands and spend their time lingering in international waters, dragging their nets and destroying ocean floors, but it’s not enough. 

I was, perhaps, the most surprised by just how wide and varied Urbina’s coverage of this issue actually was. He didn’t stop at pirate, traffickers, slavers and the like. He also managed to interview a woman who spent her time ferrying women from various locations in Mexico, where abortion was illegal, to a boat kept just outside of Mexico’s jurisdiction, where she performs abortions on the women who, for one reason or another, require this service. The risks of such an operation, and the legal aspects of it are also focused on, as well as why she feels strongly enough about this cause to put everything at risk the way she does. It was quite touching, and very eye opening, the lengths people will go to for such a medical procedure. 

He also focuses on people who have made the ocean their home, whether by creating their own micro-countries (which was FASCINATING, I will admit), or those who just make it their home to take advantage of lax shipping, human trafficking, and employment laws on the deeper seas. The ocean holds an entire world that has honestly never occurred to me. 

The thing is, this book does focus on a lot of dark topics, but Urbina does a great job at balancing out all these harrowing, dark deeds with the ingenuity of human nature, and the unbroken human spirit. As long as there are people destroying the oceans, trafficking humans, etc. There will be people working hard to stop them. 

The issue, in my mind, is that the task seems so impossible. Perhaps that is the opposite impact this book should have left me with, but there is so very much ocean, and so very few laws and people capable of enforcing (or people/countries who care enough to enforce) them… and there’s just so much of it, and so many people and companies who seem to know exactly how to skirt all of the above for their own financial gain, often at the risk of so many people who literally are trapped, that I just don’t know how it’s possible to really make a huge impact on any of that. 

I’m not a person who advocates pitchfork burnings and marching through the town square until the bad people are run off, but I very nearly think that some of these companies who traffic humans, and basically run slave ships come very close to deserving that (only the end result of “run off” needs to be “a very miserable prison”). This stuff is absolutely revolting. Human trafficking, pirates, slavery? It’s out of some fantasy novel, but it actually happens every day, all over the world, and I think the magnitude of all of it just shocked me. Here I am, in a landlocked state. None of this ever occurs to me. Never even crosses my mind. I never once look out to the horizon and think, “I wonder how many boys have been trafficked from inland parts of Thailand and are forced to work on deep sea fishing boats today?” 

So, in the end, this book opened my eyes really wide to a huge swath of the world I never, ever think about. It’s sad, and hard to read at times, but Urbina’s journalistic research is stunning, and his writing is captivating. He does not shy away from hard topics, yet he manages to balance this with the fortitude and will of the human spirit. It did not leave me with much hope, honestly, but it did leave me feeling like this needs to be a must-read book for anyone who has any concern over human rights and/or environmental issues. This is one of those books that can, and needs to, start a conversation. 

5/5 stars

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