There are about 140 million square miles of open ocean, and according to New York Times reporter Ian Urbina, much of it is essentially lawless. As Mark Young, a retired U.S. Coast Guard commander and former chief of enforcement for the Pacific Ocean, told Urbina, the maritime realm is "like the Wild West. Weak rules, few sheriffs, lots of outlaws."
All Things Considered's Audie Cornish spoke to reporter Urbina about his four-part investigation, which wrapped up Tuesday. Urbina described his time on a Thai fishing ship — a purse seiner targeting mostly jack mackerel and herring — featured in Part 3 of the series.
"The ship we spent time on had about 40 Cambodian boys, mostly, and some young men, all migrants, most of them indentured," Urbina says. "The conditions on board are extremely dangerous. This was a rat-infested, roach-infested boat. And most of these boys had been on it for more than a year."
They get little sleep, Urbina adds — just two hours at a time. The rest of the time they are fishing. There's no sanitation on board, and discipline is severe and often violent, Urbina says.
"There is a sort of cultural line that runs through the sea as a place where people have always gone to escape the law, to escape governments. It is truly the last frontier," Urbina tells Cornish. "And in some way we all benefit from the lack of rules on the high seas in that 90 percent of products we consume come to us by way of ships. And one of the reasons maritime commerce is so efficient is that there are very few rules out there. At the same time, the lack of rules I think is partly what contributes to the dire state that the seas are in: the obliteration of the fishing population, levels of pollution and now the growing levels of violence on the high seas are somewhat a result of that same concept."
For more from Urbina's harrowing reporting, listen to the interview, and read The Outlaw Ocean series here.