Taming the Outlaw Ocean
Ian Urbina
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Photo: NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program

The Lawlessness of the High Seas

A response to Ian Urbina’s investigative series

The high seas are indeed the Wild West of our oceans. Sprawling, widely unexplored, critical to our food and ecosystems, and covering nearly half of the planet, these oceans are a vast treasure trove that we must protect. They’re also home to an unheralded amount of crime and violence against people and the environment.

In his series “The Outlaw Ocean,” New York Times writer Ian Urbina reveals an underground economy that benefits a few at a largely invisible cost — a cost paid most horrifyingly by those who suffer indentured servitude or outright slavery on high-seas vessels. But it is also paid by the tens of millions of people worldwide who depend on a healthy ocean for food, economic livelihood, and cultural sustenance. That ocean faces huge threats from poorly-managed or completely unregulated fishing, pollution, dumping, and other activities on the high seas.

Fortunately, from the perspective of the environment, it’s a more promising time than ever for protecting birds, fish, marine mammals, and ecosystems of the high seas. In January, after almost a decade of debate, countries agreed to develop a new legally-binding instrument supporting the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity in the high seas. Negotiations begin next year to address key issues, including the creation of protected marine parks on the high seas and the need for uniform requirements for environmental-impact assessments among stakeholders.

I’m grateful to you, Ian, for revealing the lawless underworld of crime and destruction taking place in this remote but critically important part of our planet. And I’d love to hear from you:

  1. What did you find most compelling or surprising about the high seas from a natural-resource perspective, and how did you come to tackle this very challenging topic?
  2. What do you think are the most important steps we need to take on the conservation side?
  3. What are the links between the appalling abuses of human rights and the destruction of the environment you describe, and would it behoove us to consider them together?

There are a hundred other questions and thoughts your articles raise. It is a masterpiece of investigative reporting. Congratulations to all involved.