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Throughout the summer, The Exodus Road is highlighting some of the most urgent human trafficking issues playing out in the regions where we work. We aren’t only profiling the frontline work of our TER teams but also the cutting-edge research and work of other brave individuals and organizations in the battle against human trafficking. It is in that spirit that we are excited to feature the work of Ian Urbina.

Urbina is an investigative reporter based in Washington, D.C. His investigations often focus on worker safety, human rights, and the environment. He has received a Pulitzer Prize, a Polk Award, and has been nominated for an Emmy. The Outlaw Ocean is his latest project, providing an in-depth look at the global state of human trafficking at sea. We asked Urbina for some insight into his book and the connections he found to labor trafficking on fishing vessels.

Lawlessness at Sea

Will You Introduce yourself?

My name is Ian Urbina, and I am an investigative reporter for The New York Times. For the past five years I have been working on a series and book called The Outlaw Ocean, which chronicles the various types of crimes which occur at sea around the world.

What is the Outlaw Ocean 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.

Is there a connection with all of 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 is happening there. All of these problems are also connected in the sense 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% 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% of everything travels by ship, 50% of our oxygen comes from the ocean, and 70% of the protein we consume comes from the ocean: we are deeply dependent on the ocean.


Less than the people I encountered. It was the conditions on the fishing ships where I spent a lot of time that worried me more. 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 five-hundred-pound nets.

WHat Were Some of The Biggest Dangers on Board?

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.

From your experience, what would be the most efficient next steps in helping regulate the lawlessness at sea?

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

labor Trafficking & human rights violations

Labor trafficking is only one of the major injustices Ian Urbina experienced at sea. The stories of fishermen he interviewed all contained familiar elements of force, fraud, and debt bondage. According to ILO, an estimated 24.9 million people are victims of labor trafficking around the world, many of whom don’t even realize they are being trafficked.

Human rights violations run rampant in the lawless environment of international waters. This makes examining supply chains, raising awareness, and creating effective law vitally important if we want to truly combat this modern-day injustice.


To read more about this story and other issues plaguing our oceans, pick up Ian Urbina’s new book!

The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier