Alyssa Rosenberg writes about culture and politics for The Washington Post’s Opinions section.
The remote is now very near: Mount Everest has traffic jams, and Instagram influencers are posing at Chernobyl. The Google Car maps where we live, photographing our homes usually when the lawn is unkempt. The world has never felt smaller or more known, for good and ill.
Into that world comes Ian Urbina’s “The Outlaw Ocean” bearing an unsettling idea: There is still much we don’t know about our world, and the consequences of our ignorance are likely to arrive onshore not in a gentle swell but with crashing force. Urbina argues that the vast oceans and their borders with land are changing more quickly than we can imagine. The wide expanses of the sea are ungoverned, if not ungovernable, because it benefits too many powerful people to let them stay that way. The result is a book that leaves behind the unnerving feeling that we’re becalmed and can move in no positive direction: “The Outlaw Ocean” brings the reader up close to an overwhelming truth, but the magnitude of the revelation is paralyzing.
The book grew out of Urbina’s reporting about the sea for the New York Times, and as a result, it is constructed as a series of seafaring yarns. The installments vary wildly in tone, as you might expect in the nautical genre of storytelling. Max Hardberger, a raffish oceanic repo man, stars in Urbina’s heist story. Offshore abortionist Rebecca Gomperts helps women in an outlaw feminist fable. Captains Adam Meyerson and Wyanda Lublink are the book’s environmentalist Ahabs, chasing down not a fearsome whale but a Japanese ship that slaughters whales in exceptionally brutal fashion. And men like Lang Long, a Cambodian who was trafficked and sold into the Thai fishing industry, are modern-day Billy Budds in a system that lacks even the rough justice of a drumhead court-martial.
That Urbina has been able to pluck these people out of the vast blue expanse that surrounds them and locate them, both on the map and in our minds, at least for a moment, is an impressive feat of reporting. (It’s also to his credit that Urbina knows how to serve as a gangway between his reader and his subject material without making himself the story.) While all nonfiction books presumably exist to tell readers something they didn’t already know, “The Outlaw Ocean” uses our lack of knowledge to bolster his argument: If we don’t know much about sea slavery or the battles between environmentalists and the fishing industry, it’s because it’s hard for us landlubbers to know what happens so far from shore.
This isn’t the only sense in which Urbina has constructed his book as a kind of inexorable current, circling around and around again. Though it certainly has its lighter segments, especially Urbina’s visit to the Principality of Sealand, a micronation founded in 1967 on an abandoned offshore platform, his stories keep converging on a grim point: that the vastness of the ocean has served the purposes of governments and businesses that prefer to operate in a realm without rules.
There are exceptions, like the tiny island nation of Palau, which is trying to curb illegal fishing through quirks of maritime law that give it dominion over 230,000 square miles of ocean. But apparently, there are plenty of powerful people who stand to benefit from the lawless state of the ocean — and plenty more of us who so badly want to believe that we can have cheap, ethically harvested seafood that we’re willing to let them keep it that way. That may be difficult to do after reading “The Outlaw Ocean.” Urbina’s chronicles of man’s inhumanity to man, as well as to fish — some of which leave the creature in “Jaws” looking less like a monster and more like a justified revolutionary — had me considering giving up seafood.
Urbina is so successful at communicating the scale of the ocean, and the cruelty and neglect above and below its waters, that reading his book sometimes feels like gasping for a breath of air before slipping under the waves again. How can we possibly dismantle “an imperceptible mesh wall that can stretch seven miles across and twenty feet high” and that traps tons of fish — much less the industry that developed nets that big? Telling us that in relation to the ocean, humans are basically, in Urbina’s evocative language, “sea lice that cling to the skin of a whale” might be factually accurate. But an image like that is also a recipe for paralysis, or at least for holding on tight and simply hoping to survive.
If there’s a program for change to take away from “The Outlaw Ocean,” it might emerge from the dense tangle of marine law and custom Urbina hauls up from the fathoms. A lesser writer might have been daunted by the technicalities. But Urbina deftly reveals complicated ideas through his stories, whether he’s exploring how lacunas in Thai labor law leave sea slaves vulnerable or depicting firsthand how flags of convenience meant to track ships can be used to make them disappear.
As with plenty of what takes place on land, it’s dispiriting to think that we’ve chosen this state of affairs, and it may be too late to recover the trash that’s made its way to the deepest waters on Earth or to restore the fish and sea animal populations devastated by our insatiable appetites. But we decided to make the oceans outlaw territory; that, at least, is a decision we might be able to take back, even if only a league at a time.
By Ian Urbina
544 pp. $30