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August 12, 2019 5 min read

We are excited to highlight some of the most urgent ocean issues as they play out globally by profiling some of the compelling work and research from #TheOutlawOcean Project and Ian Urbina (@UrbinaNYT) who has spent the past several years reporting on lawlessness at sea.

Ian’s journalistic endeavor is an investigative exploration of the diversity of crimes that occur offshore including the murder of stowaways, arms trafficking, illegal fishing, pollution, dumping, drilling and human slavery on fishing ships, as it occurs on the ⅔ of the planet covered by water.

#TheOutlawOcean Project’s goal is to create an increased sense of urgency by raising awareness and broadening the public’s understanding of what happens at sea, both above and below the waterline.

Chase at Sea 1 In December 2014, the longest pursuit of an illegal fishing vessel in nautical history began. It spanned 110 days, across more than 11,550 nautical miles, crossing three oceans and two seas. 

Non-profit maritime environmental group @SeaShepherd was doing what governments should have – pursuing the world's most notorious fishing scofflaw, a ship called The Thunder, which at the time topped Interpol's most wanted list. 

This cat-and-mouse pursuit took Sea Shepherd’s crew through stadium-sized ice sheets, a ferocious storm, violent clashes and a near collision. In early April 2015 when @Ian_Urbina joined the pursuit, it became more than just a story about a vigilante conservationist organization trying to bring a recalcitrant criminal ship to justice. 

It highlighted the core problem facing the ocean: a shocking lack of enforcement of what few laws even exist on the high seas. 

Chase at Sea 2 The task for @Ian_Urbina to reach @SeaShepherd’s chaser vessel was tough – a logistical scramble. If the chaser peeled off for too far, the Thunder would get away. They caught up and got on board en route. 

By February 7, 2015, Sea Shepherd and the Thunder were in an area called Melville Bank, located several hundred miles south of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. After abruptly slowing down, the Thunder began making circles. 

Suddenly, the Thunder’s rear spotlights turned on, the trawl door at the back opened, and the ship’s crew threw out about a half mile of buoyed fishing nets. Sea Shepherd officers watched from their bridge in stunned silence. 

A half hour later, the Thunder looped back to retrieve its nets and Sea Shepherd tried blocking its path. The Thunder’s captain responded by gunning his engine and charging full bore toward one of Sea Shepherd’s vessels, but avoiding a collision by about three feet.

Chase at Sea 3 Around 7 p.m. on April 5, 2015, @SeaShepherd officers noticed strange behavior on the back deck of the Thunder. Men, some wearing orange vests, were hustling around the ship in the darkness.

Early the next morning, one of the Thunder’s crewmen threw a rope ladder over the side as if preparing to leave, which indeed they were. Then came a distress call. THUNDER: "Assistance required, assistance required," the captain said over the radio. "We’re sinking." 

The Thunder had collided with something, he said, possibly a cargo ship. "We need help," he added, estimating that his ship would sink in 15 minutes. It was an implausible claim. Aside from the Sea Shepherd vessels, no other ships had been anywhere near the Thunder for days. 

Having left the M/Y Sam Simon only a couple of days earlier, @Ian_Urbina  received a phone call from one of the Sea Shepherd crew. “You’re not going to believe this,” the deckhand said. “The Thunder is sinking right in front of me.”

Drilling at Sea: Brazil @Ian_Urbina went to Brazil to watch a fight. Not a marine fight, but a political battle – a battle between a trio of energy companies and a team of Brazilian scientists over a patch of the Atlantic Ocean near the mouth of the Amazon River. The prize? Control over a stretch of sea floor. 

The energy companies paid top dollar for the right to drill for oil in the area, but the Brazilian researchers hoped to stop them, claiming that the drilling would jeopardize a 621-mile-long coral reef nearby. Greenpeace had sent their ship, the Esperanza, to carry the researchers to an area in the ocean where they believed coral reef was. 

Greenpeace planned to put a submarine in the water, videotape the reef, and use it to argue against the drilling plans. Ian was on board and planned to go down in the submarine with the scientists, but the real drama started when, halfway to the reef, they received a radio call from the Brazilian authorities, forbidding them from diving at the risk of being arrested. #TheOutlawOcean

Drilling at sea: Arctic In 2017, @Ian_Urbina traveled on a @Greenpeace ship called the Arctic Sunrise to the Barents Sea where Statoil, the partly state-run Norwegian oil company, had parked a drilling rig called the Songa Enabler. 

The project near Norway represented a new level of risk-taking by the oil industry. No company had ever tried to drill this far north into the Arctic. 

Statoil’s well was even more controversial because it was located in international waters, over 258 miles north of mainland Norway. The law related to activities in international waters is murky. This complexity afforded Statoil greater latitude to drill and for Greenpeace to protest.

Dumping at Sea When it comes to offshore pollution, the public and media usually focus on accidental spills. But the intentional dumping of oil is actually a far more acute environmental problem. On average, ships purposely dump more oil into the oceans every three years than the amount spilled in the BP and Exxon Valdez accidents combined. 

Typically this is done using a so-called “magic pipe”, hidden on the underside of the ship. The pipe’s trick is to flush the toxic waste into the sea, making it disappear for far cheaper than disposing of it onland as is required by law. 

@Ian_Urbina spent the past five years reporting on issues like this for his new book called The Outlaw Ocean. He took a close look at one such case of magic-pipe dumping. It involved one of the world’s largest cruise liners called The Princess Caribbean. 

Marvel at Sea: Antarctica “I never quite understood the fascination with penguins…I do now. I visited a colony of Adelie penguins on the Antarctic peninsula.”- Ian Urbina 

They were loud, smelly (their living room and bathroom share the same space), and adorably awkward. Like rush-hour traffic, a gazillion determined, hunched, argumentative little men with pot bellies, wearing tuxes, waddling and body-sledding around, all seemed to be in a big hurry to get somewhere. 

Watching them, in all their goofy glory, it's hard not to start ascribing thought bubbles to what must be going through their heads.” 

Marvel at Sea: Antarctica The Antarctic seas are home to a thriving ecosystem like nowhere else on the planet, hosting the incredible colossal squid with eyes the size of bowling balls and the largest animal on the planet, the blue whale, which has arteries that are wider than a human head. These waters are also teaming with krill -- pinky-sized pink crustaceans and the primary food source for seals, penguins, albatross, squid, and especially whales. 

But krill ships have drastically improved their efficiency in recent years, using a newly developed method called “continuous fishing,” that deploys long, cylindrical nets attached to underwater vacuums which suck the massive krill swarms onboard. 

Climate change is shrinking the pack ice where krill hide from predators. Demand for krill has increased over the past decade, with catches growing 40 percent between 2010 and 2016, as the creatures are ground into fishmeal to provide protein for pigs and chickens or for Omega 3 supplements for humans. 

Ian Urbina took two long trips at sea in Antarctica to study these threats and the advocates trying to counter them.

Learn more about the stories above by visiting The Outlaw Ocean's website here