The Lawlessness of the High Seas
Lisa Speer

Hi Lisa,

By far the most surprising realization in writing about the high seas was the general lack of reporting and the failure by government to prosecute crimes. The extent of violence in some parts of the world was truly appalling. In compiling the database of this story, I was struck by the almost Mad-Max nature of the behavior of many of these boats. Violence among fishing boats is by no means a new phenomenon. But the prevalence of small arms at sea is now higher than it has ever been post WWII. And yet, so much that happens on these waters occur out of sight and out of mind of the rest of the world that lives on land and depends on seafarers. As for how I first got interested in the topic, I had worked on a ship for a brief stint about a decade ago (I talk a little about it here on Longform) and I had always wanted to explore this space.

In reference to what steps should be taken, experts offer a variety of ideas of ways to better protect the seas. But perhaps one of the most popular of these ideas has been for countries to create marine reserves. In March, for instance, the British government announced that it was creating the world’s largest contiguous reserve around the Pitcairn Islands in the South Pacific. Last year, the Obama administration added nearly a half million square miles of protected United States waters. As of now, marine reserves and no-take areas where all marine life is protected are widely seen as the best hope for restoring fish stocks, at least according to the experts I consulted. However, there are real challenges. Due to their size, these reserves are difficult to monitor. There are lots of fascinating new experiments occurring involving the use of technology like drones, satellites, and big data to police these reserves.

I certainly think there are ties between different types of criminalities. In some ways this very point is what is demonstrated by the story of the Dona Liberta. I am by no means the only person saying this. In 2011, for example, the Office on Drugs and Crime of the United Nations explored correlations between transnational organized crime and the fishing industry. Their study established clear links between illegal fishing vessels, human trafficking, and forced labor.