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Photo: Fabio Nascimento/Outlaw Ocean Project.
Investigative reporter Ian Urbina on an Indonesian patrol ship chasing Vietnamese fishing boats suspected of illegal activity.

Because we face so many monumental problems around the world, it’s easy to get discouraged and say, What can one person do? But as Pete Seeger once sang, “One and two and 50 make a million.” In other words, individual efforts add up.

Mark Trumball at the Christian Science Monitor interviews a journalist who covers the work to protect the environment and human rights on the high seas — and shares how the informed consumer can help.

“Ian Urbina is what you might call a globe-trotting journalist, except he focuses his reporting on the oceans, not the land.

“Earlier this year he was honored for his investigative writing by the Society of Professional Journalists, for stories tied to the treatment of migrants in Libya (and off its Mediterranean coast) and disruption in Gambia’s fisheries, published during 2021 in the New Yorker and the Atlantic. Another story from his Libya reporting – about Europe’s treatment of African migrants – ran here in the Monitor.

‘Now Mr. Urbina’s Outlaw Ocean Project is launching a podcast series based on his work, in partnership with the Los Angeles Times and CBC Podcasts. …

Trumball: You explore what you call the ‘outlaw ocean.’ Why are oceans so different from land – and so difficult to police?

“From the perspective of governance, you have this situation where the high seas belong to everyone and no one, and therefore jurisdictionally it’s an unusually complicated, murky space. … The second issue is geography. The reality of the high seas is it’s so incredibly sprawling, two-thirds of the planet.

“And then when it comes specifically to the category of abuses of crimes that pertain to people – murder on camera and slavery and abuse of stowaways and wage theft and abandonment of crew, you know, all these human rights and labor abuses – a contributing factor to that subcategory of crimes is who’s getting harmed. Most often the victims of those sorts of crimes are poor, are folks from developing nations. … A lot of them are not literate. A lot of them have signed contracts in languages they don’t even speak. …

“And the boss of the [floating workplace] is from one country. The flag of the factory is to another. The guys working in there, getting abused, are from a third. The catch is being all loaded on a fourth. …

Many of us might feel like, well, my connection with the ocean is when I buy some fish for dinner. But is it much more than that?

“If you think of the planet Earth as a living organism, maybe metaphorically, it has inherent systems. It’s got lungs. The lungs of the planet – 50% of the air we breathe – are cleaned by the oceans. So the lungs of the planet are at stake. If you think of it as the commercial circulatory system, 80% of our [global] commerce gets to us cheaply and efficiently … by ship. So not just fish, but iPhones and, you know, tennis shoes and grain and oil. … The oceans are also a temperature stabilizer of our body, you know, of the body planet. … They take off a lot of the heat. …

You have a seven-part podcast with the goal of shedding light on these varied challenges. … Does the stress on the oceans amount to a disaster in the making? 

“Yes, it is a disaster. But that doesn’t mean we have the luxury of being demoralized. … Do I think it’s unsolvable? No, I think there are lots of ways in which things can be done to mitigate the disaster and better govern.

A lot of people are doing lots of things in different places, in individual fights, in individual battles.

One episode features the nonprofit group Sea Shepherd chasing down a ship on Interpol’s wanted list for illegal fishing.

“Sea Shepherd [said] We’re going to go after these guys and we’re going to find them wherever they are, and we’re going to chase them and harangue them and draw a lot of media attention on them. …

“And they succeeded. You know, they found the Thunder, which was at that time ranked the top worst illegal fishing vessel on the planet, $67 million worth of illicit catch. And they found these guys – nets in the water – and proceeded to chase them for 110 days all across the planet. And all sorts of dramatic stuff happened in the interim. And ultimately the Thunder – spoiler alert here – sunk itself and all the crew were rescued … by Sea Shepherd, handed over to law enforcement, and the officers were prosecuted and served time. So I think there are cases like that where you see various actors make savvy use of the media and the law to try to make a difference. ….

“There’s more wind in the sails of the advocates and the academics who were in the trenches already fighting this fight. Now they’ve got more media behind them. I think you also see more market side players having an awareness that, you know, this issue isn’t going away. 

“Whether it’s the issue of slavery and the use of captive labor as a cost-saving tactic on fishing vessels, or intentional dumping of oil as a cost-saving tactic, or illegal fishing – meaning going places you’re not supposed to or using gear you’re not supposed to – all these things are cost-saving tactics. And who benefits from that but the companies? And the companies writ large, you know, the ship-owning companies, the insurers, the fish sellers, wholesalers, grocery stores, restaurants, all these market players are the ones who turn a blind eye. … The decentralization of the supply chain has allowed them to say, ‘Well, we don’t know what’s happening.’ You know, ‘we outsource’ … and so they can’t be held accountable. Well, I think there’s a reckoning coming on that. …

“We’re catching wild caught fish in places like Gambia that historically was eaten by the locals and was free at the market, often, because it was so plentiful. Now the locals can’t touch the stuff because they’re priced out, because it’s all going to the factory to get ground up and exported. That’s the crazy economy we have.

What can the average person do in their own actions? What would you recommend?

“First, I’d say, don’t get demoralized and don’t think that you should or can solve the war. Just think about battles, and choose which of the many battles interest you most, whether it’s sea slavery or plastic pollution or whaling or illegal fishing or murder and violence at sea or whatever. Just narrow it down, choose a bite-size thing, and then focus on that.” 

More at the Monitor, here.

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