Book Review: The Outlaw Ocean


I would rate this book 5/5. Through his extensive reporting, Urbina brings to light the corruption, pollution, and darkness humankind has bestowed on the ocean. He highlights:

  • how organizations and individuals use the muddled greyness of maritime law to their advantage

  • how governments use the same unclear rules to their own advantage

  • the horrors of the fishing industry and those who try to oppose it

  • the environmental impact human negligence and naivety have on the ocean

Urbina makes it clear that there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ guys in this setting so foreign to most people, and the importance of mental strength in survival.


With the prevalent loopholes and vagueness of maritime law, it is no surprise how frequently the rules are twisted. There is a vast array of people who freely interpret maritime law: from the vigilante environmental group Sea Shepherd that stemmed from Greenpeace, to the Adelaide whose captain, Rebecca Gomperts, performs abortions outside of ports that ban the procedure, and to a man, Roy Bates, who gifted his wife a micronation named Sealand. Urbina gives in-person reports throughout the longest maritime chase between Sea Shepherd and the infamous trawler, the Thunder; the Adelaide’s tense escape from Mexican shores, and a look at Sealand and its surprisingly complex history. These three are just a few of the many examples from The Outlaw Ocean that expertly navigate between the lines of the laws of the sea. It is incredibly worthwhile to read them.


Unsurprisingly, governments also take advantage of the ambiguous maritime rules, as Urbina unveils throughout his reporting. For example, after the events of 9/11, the American government needed a place to interrogate terrorist suspects, so they took to the ocean. Because the detention ships fly the American flag, the Miranda rights still apply. However, the degree they apply is vague which creates more legal leeway. Some suspects held on the military ships include Abu Khattala, John Walker Lindh, and Mansoor Adayfi, the latter Urbina interviewed about detainment at Guantanamo Bay. Adayfi revealed the psychological and physical experience of being held onboard a detention ship.


The USA is not the only government that has shady business surrounding the ocean. The Somali state, Puntland, is creating tension between its government and federal officials and local fishermen by granting Thai trawlers (an illegal practice in Somalia) fishing licenses, which is not in Puntland’s power to grant. I found this chapter, The Somali 7, particularly interesting because of the multi-layers to the story. While Urbina initially sought to report a positive story on Somali’s off-shore policing, his arrival in the country caused another story to unravel. I found this chapter clearly showed how deep maritime corruption runs and how some common villians, such as pirates, may not be what they seem.

The longest-running story throughout The Outlaw Ocean revolves around the horrors of the fishing industry. When I started this book, my knowledge of questionable ethics in fishing were only on environmental matters; trawling, pollution caused by the ships and their waste, and whaling, to name a few. But by chapter 3, Urbina showed how much more vast the immorality is. Several chapters are dedicated to the multitude of humanitarian crises that occur on fishing ships; abuse, human trafficking, sexual and physical assault, etc. seemed to be common occurrences, especially on Thai-flagged ships. Urbina reports from a brothel/karaoke club in Thailand that is a popular spot for smuggling migrants, from a refuge for escapees, and even onboard a few ships infamous for abuse. His close-up reporting shows the poor working conditions, the tension between crew members and superior officers, and how deep-seated the abuse is. While action is being taken by a few governments, such as Thailand, and the crisis is gaining more attraction, it is obvious more needs to be done.


Finally, Urbina reports on a few prominent environmental issues, such as: Brazillian scientists vs. three electrical companies, the waste produced by the cruise ship industry, and the Japanese whaling industry. He joins the scientists near the Brazilian Amazon in their quest to prove and share the existence of a 970km reef to prevent drilling companies from destroying it. Later, he interviews a previous cruise ship engineer who reported his ship for using a forbidden waste expeller called a magic pipe, thus revealing the dark side to the popular industry. In the final chapter, Urbina tells of the feud between Sea Shepard and the Japanese whaling industry, specifically the ship the Nisshin Maru and spends time at a research post on Carlos III, a tiny Chilean island. The continuous competitions between the environment and money are tense, and Urbina brings the reader along for the ride.


Ocean conservation is not as simple as reducing single-use plastic, buying certified seafood, and signing petitions. The complexities of the ocean realm interconnect in an intricate web that would take more than a few vigilantes and scientists to unwind. Urbina shows ocean conservation is also about the people who live, work, and embezzle on the high seas. Protecting all the lives in and on the ocean requires a worldwide effort.


Written by Lauren Traboulsee


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