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'The seas are where inhumanities occur,' says Pulitzer Prize winner Ian Urbina

'The seas are where inhumanities occur,' says Pulitzer Prize winner Ian Urbina


January 28, 2021 at 2:45pm

The ocean can be a very dangerous place. And many times the biggest threat is not from nature.

Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Ian Urbina traveled the world’s oceans and continents for five years, discovering nefarious activities, specifically human trafficking and sea slavery. In his book—The Outlaw Ocean, a New York Times bestseller —Urbina shines a light on this aspect of the oceans, rarely explored.

On Jan. 21, Urbina participated in a panel discussion—hosted by Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy— and shared his investigative work on maritime law, illegal fishing, modern-day slavery and other types of ocean crimes. The roundtable discussion was led by Bruce Vitor, associate director for research innovation at the Gordon Institute.

“The seas are where inhumanities occur, often without impunity … an estimated 90 percent of crimes at sea go unreported,” Urbina said.

Urbina found that many people are enticed by promises of work and are instead treated like prisoners on ships with poor conditions and minimal medical supplies. In his book, he shares the story of a 32-year-old man who spent three years enslaved in shackles until he was finally rescued. Instances like these are due to overfished coastal areas forcing fishing vessels to sail further from the coast, minimizing enforcement and oversight and worsening conditions for crew.

The environmental damage that’s occurring in the open sea is also a big problem. The ratio of legal to illegal fishing is catastrophic, and the impact on the food chain is irreparable. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, IUU fishing (illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing) is a worldwide issue that threatens ocean ecosystems, sustainable fisheries, economic security, and global food security.

Urbina, a winner of the George Polk Award, attributes the crimes being committed to a lack of organization existing that protects the high seas.

“There isn’t a lack of law, but a lack of enforcement,” he said.

Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing Conference

The roundtable discussion precedes the Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing Conference to be held on Wednesday, Feb. 3, at 9 a.m. EST.

Moderated by Luis Guillermo Solis, former president of Costa Rica and interim director of the Kimberly Green Latin America and Caribbean Center at FIU, the conference will address the importance of IUU fishing— highlighting the global and regional impacts while debating prospective solutions. Speakers will include Admiral Karl Schultz, Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard; Jean Manes, Southern Command civilian deputy to the commander and foreign policy advisor who formerly served as ambassador to El Salvador; and Urbina.

IUUFCon2021 will stream live and be available in English, Spanish and Portuguese. It is free and open to the public.

For more information, the conference agenda and to register for the IUU Fishing Conference, visit