Urbina cites the ecologist Garret Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commons,” which argues that communal resources will be overexploited and underprotected; the concept applies not just to the seas themselves but to the over 56 million people who fish there, a source of cheap labor for whom few take responsibility. (Women represent a minuscule fraction of global fishing workers; in his travels, Urbina encounters nearly only men.) Attempts to enforce rules, whether by the wealth-backed vigilantes of the maritime conservation group Sea Shepherd or the Indiegogo-funded maritime police of the nation of Palau, fall almost laughably short. “The more I explored the outlaw ocean,” Urbina writes, “the tougher it became to distinguish the predators from the prey.” Workers on illegal fishing ships may have no idea that they’re breaking the law; those who report misdeeds lose the jobs they depend on. “We stood up,” explains a former deckhand who helped expose inhumane conditions — sailors raped, locked in refrigerators, and forced to pull in amounts of fish that they knew would sink them — on a South Korean trawler. “Now the rest are benefiting and we can’t work again.” Even when countries pass laws to protect workers, ships can just sail elsewhere. There is no way to govern the seas without loopholes. The ocean is a loophole.
Of course, not all loopholes are used for evil — some uses are absurd, or even humanitarian. In one chapter, the principality of Sealand uses its dubious claim to sovereignty to create a data haven for illicit content (and to sell merch and knighthood online). In another, the Dutch doctor and artist Rebecca Gomperts sails the world in a sloop, offering safe abortions near countries where they’re illegal. Urbina joins her in Ixtapa, Mexico, as she races waves and authorities out of port with two frightened pregnant women on board. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Urbina finds that governments seem far more motivated to block Gomperts’s work, which is legal in international waters, than to protect fishermen from, say, murder, which is not.
These chapters are vibrant as individual stories, but as a collection they’re transcendent, rendering a complex portrait of an unseen and disturbing world. Urbina pursues a depth of reportage that’s rare because of the guts and diligence it requires — not to mention the budget, which must have been enormous. The result is not just a fascinating read, but a truly important document.
It is also a master class in journalism. As he enters these worlds, Urbina provides glimpses into his methods, his fears and misconceptions. He describes how, even at home, he keeps a backpack ready to leave at a moment’s notice; he recounts failed attempts to reach ships, bribes and begging and desperate solutions. He explains the choreographed silence during an interview with a former slave, and establishes a secret code for his family in case he’s taken hostage, then drains the battery on his inReach anyway. This kind of writing — a catalog of the reporter’s process — can veer into self-indulgence, but for Urbina it’s another tool by which he invites readers into communities, demonstrating how isolated they are, how vulnerable and suspicious, and how their governance is designed to hold no one truly accountable.