The Outlaw Ocean, a series of four New York Times stories, is a disturbing report of crime, violence and greed on the high seas. And you thought the days of swashbuckling pirates was gone! Unfortunately, there is nothing glamorous or legendary about illegal activity in international waters.
A New York Times editorial, Lawlessness at Sea, explains:
An estimated 99 percent of the crimes committed at sea — everything from murder to kidnapping, slavery to thievery — go unprosecuted and barely noted, according to maritime experts. Even when these crimes are noted, justice is rarely sought, as was the case recently with a grisly cellphone video of four men bobbing in the water next to a ship, pleading for mercy. They were soon shot to death by order of a shipboard authority, which stirred curiosity and laughter among crewmen but little else as the crime drifted away in the ship’s wake.
The video and the scale of the routine mayhem at sea are among the findings of a series of articles in The Times that detail the extremes of violence and danger at sea.
Impunity seems to be the law as nations choose to exercise minimal responsibility, inquiring into crimes only for those ships flying their own flag. “In the maritime world, it’s far easier for countries to look the other way,” Mark Young, a retired United States Coast Guard commander and former chief of enforcement for the Pacific Ocean, told Ian Urbina of The Times.
Thousands of seafarers, fishermen and migrants die under suspicious circumstances each year, but the ships move on and no one is required to report crimes committed in international waters. Tens of thousands of workers, many of them children, are exploited and enslaved every year on boats, while thousands more die in accidents linked to lax or nonexistent safety practices. Stowaways are cast into the sea. Crews go unpaid by shipowners and are left marooned far from home.
Governments that call themselves civilized have been largely ignoring the outlaw aspects of the oceans for centuries. The question is how much longer normal mayhem will continue, as the limits of the globe become ever clearer. “Like the Wild West,” is how Mr. Young described the maritime realm. “Weak rules, few sheriffs, lots of outlaws.”
Two samples of the four part series follow.
ABOARD THE BOB BARKER, in the South Atlantic — As the Thunder, a trawler considered the world’s most notorious fish poacher, began sliding under the sea a couple of hundred miles south of Nigeria, three men scrambled aboard to gather evidence of its crimes.
In bumpy footage from their helmet cameras, they can be seen grabbing everything they can over the next 37 minutes — the captain’s logbooks, a laptop computer, charts and a slippery 200-pound fish. The video shows the fishing hold about a quarter full with catch and the Thunder’s engine room almost submerged in murky water. “There is no way to stop it sinking,” the men radioed back to the Bob Barker, which was waiting nearby. Soon after they climbed off, the Thunder vanished below…
As the rusty refrigerator ship moved across two oceans and five seas and among 20 ports, it routinely abused, cheated and abandoned its crew, caused an oil slick nearly 100 miles long, and drew citations from a half-dozen countries for other environmental violations. Creditors chased its owner for millions of dollars in unpaid debts, and maritime watchdog groups listed its parent company as an illegal fishing suspect. Still, the ship operated freely and never lacked for work or laborers.
“In the maritime world, it’s far easier for countries to look the other way with problem ships like the Dona Liberta than to do something about them,” said Mark Young, a retired United States Coast Guard commander and former chief of enforcement for the Pacific Ocean.