Why you need to read The Outlaw Ocean

This morning, The New York Times published the fourth installment of The Outlaw Ocean —a wide-ranging investigation into murder, exploitation, criminal pollution of waterways, and illegal fishing across our tragedy-ridden commons: the high seas.

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This post was updated on July 30, 2015.
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This morning, The New York Times published the fourth installment of The Outlaw Ocean —a wide-ranging investigation into murder, exploitation, criminal pollution of waterways, and illegal fishing across our tragedy-ridden commons: the high seas.

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Ian Urbina, a member of the Times’ investigations unit, has crafted some exhaustively documented stories covering everything from stowaways to the difficulties associated with monitoring international waters.

Roughly 2,000 stowaways are caught each year hiding on ships. Hundreds of thousands more are sea migrants, whose journey involves some level of complicity from the ship’s crew.

If able to stay concealed, these individuals —forced or incentivized to take such risks— fall prey to chance and circumstance.

Refrigerated fishing holds become cold, exhaust pipes heat up, shipping containers are sealed and fumigated. Maritime newsletters and shipping insurance reports offer a macabre accounting of the victims: “Crushed in the chain locker,” “asphyxiated by bunker fumes,” “found under a retracted anchor.” Most often, though, death comes slower. Vomiting from seasickness leads to dehydration. People pass out from exhaustion. They starve.

But stowaways found aboard, far beyond the territorial markers of individual countries, become mere data points and, like other crew members, are subject to the rise and fall of the market: of buyers and sellers in marginal industries, of captains trying to squeeze out the barest of profits.

According to the Times’s investigation, these men often become obstacles to be disposed of by whatever means most convenient.

Murders regularly occur offshore — thousands of seafarers, fishermen or sea migrants die under suspicious circumstances annually, maritime officials say — but culprits are rarely held accountable.

These murders can be documented —even videotaped— but accountability drowns in the same ice-cold waters.

“Summary execution, vigilantism, overzealous defense, call it what you will,” said Klaus Luhta, a lawyer with the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots, a seafarers’ union. “This boils down just the same to a case of murder at sea and a question of why it’s allowed to happen.”

But the answer is as unsatisfying as the explanation is frustrating. Urbina writes:

Though the global economy is ever more dependent on a fleet of more than four million fishing and small cargo vessels and 100,000 large merchant ships that haul about 90 percent of the world’s goods, today’s maritime laws have hardly more teeth than they did centuries ago when history’s great empires first explored the oceans’ farthest reaches.

But these sea-based industries require bodies and their labor. Urbina tracks this rise to ‘sea slaves’ in the heart of southeast Asia:

While forced labor exists throughout the world, nowhere is the problem more pronounced than here in the South China Sea, especially in the Thai fishing fleet, which faces an annual shortage of about 50,000 mariners, based on United Nations estimates. The shortfall is primarily filled by using migrants, mostly from Cambodia and Myanmar.

And:

While United Nations pacts and various human rights protections prohibit forced labor, the Thai military and law enforcement authorities do little to counter misconduct on the high seas.

Into this void, however, creep private (and independently funded) organizations trying to carve off and address these persistent issues —seemingly beyond the current reach (or interests) of individual governments.  Thus, in their final segment, the Times retells the story of the Sea Shepard vigilante crews, who stalked one of the ocean’s worst offenders across 10,000 miles of ocean for 110 days.

In an epic game of cat-and-mouse, the ships maneuvered through an obstacle course of giant ice floes, endured a cyclone-like storm, faced clashes between opposing crews and nearly collided in what became the longest pursuit of an illegal fishing vessel in history.

While the pursuit culminated in the sinking of the fugitive ship, the article’s conclusion —in which the author hints the ship could have been intentionally scuttled, carrying evidence of its crimes to the ocean’s floor— leaves readers with the image of a defiant captain, his fist raised, as his infamous vessel dips below the waves.

This short summary is not —and should not— supplement for reading these stories. Urbina’s lengthy investigation isn’t is not intended as an ending, but as a beginning:

There is much at stake: A melting Arctic has expanded trade routes. Evolving technology has opened the deep seabed to new mining and drilling. Maritime rivalry and piracy have led to more violent clashes. And, with an ever more borderless economy, sea commerce is vital to many countries. “Without ships, half of the world would freeze and the other half would starve,” Rose George, a British nautical writer, said.

A hallmark of journalism committed properly is its ability to hook a reader, reeling them into a world that is both distant and inextricably connected to their everyday life. This series accomplishes just that.


Update: Ian Urbina joined the team at Longform to discuss his project, The Outlaw Ocean. You can by clicking the Longform icon below. (One of many gems to be discovered on the Longform site

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To Catch a Pirate

It’s harder than you think.

After five months of work, and some careful legal pruning, TIME has published my latest long-read: The Most Dangerous Waters in the World.  According to the UN’s latest study (spanning 1995-2013) the high seas and commercial channels of Southeast Asia are home to the world’s most active pirates. While the location might surprise some (What about Captain Phillips?) piracy’s persistence shouldn’t.  Piracy is the world’s oldest international crime and has confounded even the world’s strongest (and most adept) navies for more than 500 years.

In June, I spent time with the Indonesian marine police. Based on the northern edge of Batam Island, the police outfit was tasked with patrolling a seemingly endless coastline —stretching from the Port of Singapore out into the deep waters of the South China Sea.

Towards the end of one patrol, the crew spotted a wooden skiff angling across our intended path, headed to Belakang Padang. In the 1980s, that small group of islands was a pirate haven. On sight of the vessel, however, the second in command, an officer named Borish, decide to investigate.

Indonesia's marine police stop a vessel during their afternoon patrol off the coast of Batam Island. When asked why, officers noted the ship "looked wrong" and wanted to investigate. Beyond piracy, marine authorities contend with high rates of international smuggling in Southeast Asia. (Photo: Adam McCauley)
Indonesia’s marine police stop a vessel during their afternoon patrol off the coast of Batam Island. When asked why, officers noted the ship “looked wrong” and wanted to investigate. Beyond piracy, marine authorities contend with high rates of international smuggling in Southeast Asia. (Photo: Adam McCauley)

As we pulled alongside the ship, Borish walked to the bow of the police vessel, tossed an anchor rope across the void and called out to the captain. With the boats steadied, captain of the skiff, carrying a small, dust-worn backpack, climbed aboard. He pulled out a series of permits —required by Indonesian law for any vessel transporting cargo— for Borish to review. The documents checked out, but Borish wasn’t convinced. “It just looks wrong,” he said, as he walked out of the cabin.

Indonesia's marine police stop a vessel during their afternoon patrol off the coast of Batam Island. When asked why, officers noted the ship "looked wrong" and wanted to investigate. Beyond piracy, marine authorities contend with high rates of international smuggling in Southeast Asia. (Photo: Adam McCauley)
Before leaving the ship, officers uncovered a hidden compartment in the bow of the ship. It was empty —on this day. (Photo: Adam McCauley)

The skiff was crudely crafted out of raw wood, sporting multiple cracks. The crew’s wet laundry was hung to dry over a taut, rusty wire strung between two wooden pillars that propped up the boat’s slanting roof. Making his way past a stack bagged cement sand, Borish checked the engine hold, looked at the motor, and then rooted through various storage compartments. These were the easy locations to hide contraband, he later said. Finding little of interest, Borish walked to the bow of the boat, shifting empty crates to reveal a large, concealed stowage area —empty, save some residual sand and paper refuse. “Not today,” he said, as he stepped back onto the police vessel.

A member of the Indonesian marine police jumps from the deck of a moored, confiscated, Thai-registered fishing boat to the dock outside police headquarters in Sekupang, Batam Island in Indonesia. (Photo: Adam McCauley)
A member of the Indonesian marine police jumps from the deck of a moored, confiscated, Thai-registered fishing boat to the dock outside police headquarters in Sekupang, Batam Island in Indonesia. (Photo: Adam McCauley)

On each patrol, Indonesian officers estimate they stop between two and five boats —few registering anything more exciting than some expired permits. But traveling for hours, transfixed by the crystal blue of the open water, I tried to comprehend just how difficult the search for pirates is. Even months later, I’m left with a clumsy metaphor:

Pretend you are in the middle of a pitch-black football (soccer) stadium. Hundreds of people are walking in various directions, silently, around you. Among them are a handful of criminals, largely indistinguishable, who intend to rob others on the field. Your job is to track and stop them. But instead of a flashlight, you carry a lantern, casting weak light in all directions.

How many could you catch?

A Tunnel…And then Light.

To report with meaning, you need support. How much is journalism worth to you?

When I was completing my last degree at Columbia, I was fortunate to spend precious class time with one of the school’s most decorated (and hard-assed) professors. While discussing what it would take to make it in this business, he offered a simple conclusion: “You just have to feel like you couldn’t do anything else.” Because I can’t…

I’m excited to announce I’ve joined Beacon, a new service for freelancers like myself to gain added traction on the “tear-you-down-I’ll-give-you-a-penny-per-word” internet. Beacon was launched this year to connect readers with their favorite (and new) writers. The beauty of the service is that, even if you just want to read my work (#flattering), you’ll gain access to a wide stable of journalists on the front lines worldwide. I said yes to Beacon, because we all need to find some way to financially support reporters who devote their time and energy to keep this industry alive.

On Beacon, I’ve attempted to narrow my focus, and will be reporting/writing/opining and complaining about security issues in West and Central Africa. The end goal: to justify the time and energy needed for a large, non-fiction project —that secret is still mine.

So how do you help? Through my profile page, you will be able to subscribe ($5/month) to me directly. That contribution will provide the much needed income so I can keep doing what I’m doing. For you, it will open up the world of Beacon —a pastiche of national and international reporting presented aesthetically for you each and every day.

On Beacon, I’ll be posting regularly, whether real-time updates from the field, articles (featuring original and compiled reporting) or comments on current events (as they relate to the broader topic). Over time, the goal is to create a persuasive and compelling account of an international security space that is still largely misunderstood.

The first post on Beacon will tackle the issue of piracy (A topic I’ve written about in the past). As security topics go, piracy can be exceedingly nebulous, the recent Hollywood release of Captain Phillips, a film that dramatizes the real-life kidnapping of an American captain off the Somali coast in 2009, has brought the topic back into (temporary) vogue. The movie, which fails to tackle the myriad actors that effect, or are affected by, piracy or the context in which it persists. One benefit of greater awareness, however, might be a slight bump in interest, and a desire for new and balanced coverage. My first post on Beacon is a short brief of what the movie missed, and what reporters (like myself) might add.

My decision to cover West and Central Africa, and for a service like Beacon, is certainly strategic. I believe that any discussion of this region, specifically in so far as it relates to security, speaks to a growing concern among scholars, policymakers and anyone curious about the future of American foreign policy. If I had to wager, something I often avoid, I would risk a considerable sum on the claim that sub-saharan Africa —both its land and territorial waters— will be the landscape for “future wars” against organized crime and terrorism, and as a region of concern for lingering conflicts. The fact that the United States will play a leading role in this space whether it wants to, is capable of if, or likely to benefit from it, is incontrovertible.

So for those eager to see “what’s next” before that future arrives, I invite you to join me on the new platform. If you know someone who is interested in this space, might be interested in this topic, and wants to support the type of journalism that fuels many of us to keep working for little pay, I would appreciate your help in sharing the page: http://www.beaconreader.com/adam-mccauley.

If those people need further prodding, send them back here —which I’ll be updating regularly— to pique their interest.

Finally. For those who took the time to read, and who might now take a moment to contribute, I can’t thank you enough. Without you, I simply can’t do this.

New piracy report

While I’m in transit at the moment, I wanted to flag an important piece on piracy, published today by Tristan McConnell at GlobalPost. While there are more details to tease out of the report, I wanted to highlight one section of his article:

Although the Al Qaeda-aligned terror group Al Shabaab remains publicly opposed to piracy, the report claims some local commanders received a share of pirate earnings as part of a protection racket that permitted pirate gangs to operate in Shabaab territory.

While these disclosures often lead to knee-jerk terrorism-talk, the story is more complex. More on this when I’m back on the ground.

Challenging Pirates in Tempestuous Seas

In keeping with the “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” argument, most countries have a non-engagement policy with pirates: paying a ransom is seen to incentivize the illegal activity — to give rise to a new wave of open-sea scoundrels eager to exploit the lucrative shadow world of transnational crime. But as the tactics used by the private sector are incompatible with the strategy taken by states, pirates are left to exploit the middle ground.

Two days ago, I wrote about the issue of piracy, specifically off the coast of Somalia. Known as the Gulf of Aden, this treacherous strip of blue water is traversed by nearly 20,000 vehicles each year. While only a small percentage of those vessels are attacked by pirates, the criminal enterprise is estimated to cost nearly $7 billion dollars annually —in ransom, insurance or surrendered goods. With piracy being an internationally recognized crime, it stands to reason that the response would be swift, coordinated and effective. However, piracy off the Horn of Africa persists —and exists— because the many of the proposed solutions are mutually exclusive.

Piracy primarily affects private vessels. While most of these boats are commercial, the goods in any one vessel can range from food stuffs to oil/natural gas resources. This variability means the potential losses —financially— also vary widely. For private companies shipping their goods through the gulf, insuring their property can be an exorbitant cost. After a rash of pirate attacks in 2008, these individual insurance premiums rose even further, making insurance rates almost unworkable.

Interestingly, the high cost of insurance persists despite the low likelihood of pirate attack —even in the 2008 spike, only 40 boats were affected. As a result, companies often decide to take their chance. The problem sharpens when their luck runs out.

When a boat is commandeered by a pirate group, the real money is in the ransom demanded for crew and goods. For obvious reasons, it is easier to extort cash from a private company that to dock the hijacked boat, unload the goods and resell the materials in a local market. *(Considering the state of the Somali economy, combined with the lack of infrastructure to transport anything quickly and easily to other grey or black market locations, ransom becomes standard operating procedure.)

Now, if companies have failed to purchase the overpriced insurance —and when you factor in the moral imperative to negotiate the safe return of their employees— companies often pay the ransom, reward the pirates, and free their ship. The only issue, however, is that this course of action is diametrically opposed the tact taken by states.

In keeping with the “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” argument, most countries have a non-engagement policy with pirates: paying a ransom is seen to incentivize the illegal activity — to give rise to a new wave of open-sea scoundrels eager to exploit the lucrative shadow world of transnational crime. But as the tactics used by the private sector are incompatible with the strategy taken by states, pirates are left to exploit the middle ground.

For nearly a decade, states have been trying to shrink this middle ground through a renewed security operations, particularly in the Gulf of Aden. Due to the importance of the region to the global merchant economy (the gulf is primary sea-lane for commercial shipments from east to west and vice versa) US, Chinese, and a constellation of NATO naval campaigns have assumed the costs of patrolling the international waters. But even as naval patrols and international security alliances work (at great cost to the sponsoring nations) to repel pesky pirates, the practice continues unabated.

Geographically, the extensive size of the sea makes effective patrolling nearly impossible, and has led most patrol vessels to merely escort commercial vehicles through the narrowest (“pinched”) stretches of the gulf. These inlets force larger ships to slow down, thus allowing quick moving pirate skiffs to board and commandeer the vessel. While most pirates flee as soon as naval vessels arrive, the deterrent effect of these patrols is still quite weak.

In part, this is due to the very triggers of piracy: a weak Somali state without a functioning (or followed) rule of law, means that pirates can abuse the legal system while remaining immune from its punishment; their shuttered economy cannot be addressed by an international naval strategy intent on rooting out the very pirates forced into the world of crime after their country’s insufficient infrastructure completely collapsed in the 1990s. And, if both the above are true, then the costs associated with being caught pale in comparison to the potential gains of successful pirating: where else would an impoverished Somali ex-fisherman find 30,000 USD?

For any spectator, and certainly for most analysts, the greater Horn region presents myriad challenges to security, order and growth —conditions necessary to create the institutional strength  many believe Somalia sorely needs. But the challenge of piracy highlights a harder moral, intellectual and political calculation: what can be done to crackdown on the practice today, if the causes of piracy will take decades to address?

While the answer isn’t clear, some ideas have been proffered. Those, however, will be tackled in a later post.

The Power of Pirates

More than two years ago, I spent six months studying piracy off the coast of Somalia. The problem then, as it is today, is that piracy is one of the most trying “tragedy of the commons” challenges facing the east coast of Africa’s horn and the Gulf of Aden.

This most trafficked shipping way has been the target of significant pirate activity over the past decade, growing steadily since the collapse of the Somali state in the early 1990s –most will know this only by reference to the US’ Blackhawk Down fiasco.

But as government order broke down and the international waterways were soon poached by hungry foreign fishing vessels, Somali fisherman became desperate. If their livelihoods were being erased by boats flying foreign flags, the Somalis would police the waters themselves–exacting tariffs and taxes from any boat they could.

This gave rise to the Somali Marines, a group now considered to be the first–and perhaps strongest– of the pirate gangs. Time has splintered this group further, and the influence of foreign military engagement in Somalia (Ethiopia in 2006, for example) has polarized a number of groups against other political factions and, in the case of Al Shabaab, towards an extremist ideology akin to Al Qaeda.

What becomes clearer, however, is that the scourge of piracy (and it’s continued growth) is not solely a consequence of politics and insecurity, but a function of economic collapse, opportunism, and recognition that the interest of states, local communities and the private sector (the companies whose staffs and stowage are targeted) might be to eliminate piracy, even when their proposed solutions often make the problem of piracy worse.

More to follow.