The result of five years of intrepid reporting, more than three of them at sea, this is a gripping, shocking account of the rampantly criminal world that operates on the high seas. Too big to police, and under no clear international authority, Urbina reveals the traffickers, smugglers, pirates, poachers, oil-dumpers, shackled slaves and stowaways at large. It's a depressing but necessary book which exposes under-protected oceans and the "misery often faced by those who work these waters". Film rights were sold to Leonardo di Caprio and Netflix.
There is no lack of danger in Urbina’s travels; impressively, he never shies away from it. A chapter on Puntland, an autonomous region of Somalia on the Horn of Africa, is gripping, and probably uncomfortable reading for his family, who thought him to be somewhere near east Kenya rather than spending a night on a hotel roof while waiting in fear for hostile government forces to come, possibly to kill him. This drama is riveting, but so is the endemic abuse that Urbina finds.
The oceans are vast, but their bounty is finite and the outlaws are increasingly well equipped, with gadgets that tell them where the fish are. The global black market in seafood is worth more than $20bn, Urbina notes; appetites are insatiable. Consider the butchering of sharks for their fins, served at weddings around east Asia – it brings down whole ecosystems, as the massacre allows smaller reef-eating fish to proliferate. With the world’s seafood stocks in crisis, Urbina lifts the thick veil on a global criminal culture, at just the moment when the damage inflicted on the oceans is becoming terminal.
Urbina writes with extreme verve about life at sea. At times, you almost feel constricted by the sounds of the waves and the lack of breathing space and sickened by the state of the food. But the book also reveals the smoke and mirrors that form part of the modern journalist’s trade. In his acknowledgements, Urbina thanks his front-of-house collaborators, including the journalists, fixers, photographers and videographers who elicited the personal stories that make the statistics credible, as well as the backstage sponsors, more than forty of them, who provided ‘material support’.
At the start of the book Urbina explains that, rather than force it into a “single, straight-line narrative”, he has left it as a series of essays, for the readers to “connect the dots”. At times this is grating — the book doesn’t just sprawl, but hops around from subject to subject; episodes, such as the one on Sealand, bob up incongruously out of nowhere, like buoys near the shore. But perhaps this is appropriate too — the oceans are not just vast and deep, but unpredictable. More of the night sky has been mapped than the oceans’ depths; much still remains unknown. This book will make you look at them again and see them anew.