The Outlaw Ocean: Book Review

Fall 2020


By Monica Allard Cox | Photographs courtesy of The Outlaw Ocean Project

THERE IS A STORY YOU KNOW—say, the controversy surrounding Japanese “research” whaling in the Antarctic. Then there are the details you didn’t know, perhaps—the brutality of how the whales are slaughtered, or the vast bureaucracy around government-sponsored whaling that would view any curtailing of the program—especially at the pressure of other nations—as a source of embarrassment. And then there is the rest of the story—the battle of wits between whales and the toothfish (“Chilean sea bass”) boat captains, who try to fend off the whales as they eat the fish right off the hooks before the fishermen can haul them on board. The whales, author Ian Urbina writes, have learned to recognize the sound of the winch motor that tugs the fishing line and can hear it from 15 miles away.

“The problem got worse in Alaska in the 1990s, after fishery authorities lengthened the fishing season from two weeks to eight months. Rather than tightly limiting boats’ time at sea or, for example, giving boats two weeks to land as much as they wanted, the authorities permitted captains to take however long they pleased, but only to land a set quantity of fish.

The authorities’ goal in extending the fishing season had been to discourage boat captains from taking dangerous risks as they tried to beat the weather and race the clock, but an unintended consequence of the policy was that by having boats in the water for longer, the likelihood of overlap between the whales and these boats went up.

It also gave whales the time to hone their skills and pin down exactly when and how to best hijack the long-liners.”

Urbina adds that the captains have tried numerous tactics, from blasting heavy metal music to using decoy boats to trick the whales. But the orcas, in particular, are intelligent and tough to deter. One captain says he had tried using a series of noise-making equipment, but eventually the orcas learned to ignore the sound.

This fascinating sideline returns to the story of the Japanese (and Norwegian) whalers, who justify their hunts due to whales’ depredation of the fishing vessels’ catch. (“Most whale researchers reject these claims,” Urbina notes). The tale of these whales doesn’t end there—Urbina goes on to chronicle how other fishery regulation changes made the whales even more dangerous to the fishing boats, and how vacuum boats that suck massive quantities of krill—whale’s dietary staple—out of the ocean are also threatening the whales, as is global warming. And along the way he profiles the nonprofit organization and its boat captains and crew who supply vigilante justice where governments, in their eyes, fall short.

Ian Urbina’s reporting for The Outlaw Ocean took him across five seas and 14 countries in Africa, Asia, South America, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean.

The shifting narrative, the insights into human and animal behavior, and the cascades of unintended consequences in this one chapter of The Outlaw Ocean may give a clue as to why Leonardo DiCaprio optioned the film rights to the book—and reveal the challenges in adapting even one chapter for the screen. How could a filmmaker narrow down the plot twists or the characters? How could someone make this true story believable? For in fact, the story of the whales, hunter and hunted, is not the most shocking chapter in the book. Urbina, who spent more than five years reporting for The Outlaw Ocean, takes readers on board rickety boats many miles offshore as high seas set in, to the depths of the ocean on submarine voyages, and to the tiny island “nation” of Sealand. He brings us face-to-face with stowaways, scientists, maritime repo men, human traffickers and their victims, and the humanitarians and environmentalists who fill in the voids between competing, complacent, or ill-equipped governments. Portions of the book have a spy-caper-movie feel to them as Urbina talks about getting out of any number of scrapes with death, while his subjects describe conning government officials, “extracting” ships from unfriendly ports, or chasing poachers more than 11,000 miles across three oceans and two seas.

But in the end, he writes, “the most important thing I saw from ships all around the world … was an ocean woefully underprotected and the mayhem and misery often faced by those who work these waters.”

What he saw created for him an urgency to continue this reporting after his leave from the New York Times ended, said Urbina during a virtual talk at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography in September. “The stories were so urgent and so dramatic … that I had touched on and also hadn’t gotten the chance to touch on … I stepped away from the Times, created a nonprofit to produce these stories … for the New York Times and other venues around the world.”

He described some of those stories and his organization’s work with artists to create musical and animated works inspired by the reporting.

Watch Urbina’s talk

 Urbina discusses The Outlaw Ocean Project for the URI Graduate School of Oceanography’s Charles and Marine Fish lecture.

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