Ian Urbina is transforming investigative reporting on environmental crimes

  (photo credit: Ian Urbina)
(photo credit: Ian Urbina)

Back in January, the U.S. Coast Guard suspended its search for victims after recovering the bodies of five migrants who went missing along with 33 other migrants off the coast of the Florida Straits. In a desperate attempt to reach the United States, the Coast Guard has been busy addressing the surge in seaborne migration on both coasts, which carry migrants from countries all over the world, presenting an unexpected and new issue for U.S. President Joe Biden and his administration. 

In 2021’s fiscal year, more than 3,200 migrants were apprehended trying to reach the U.S. by sea, with Southern California believed to be the busiest year of maritime smuggling on the record, totaling nearly 2,000 apprehensions.

Ian Urbina is the founder and director of The Outlaw Ocean Project, a non-profit journalism organization based in Washington, D.C. which focuses on human rights and environmental crimes offshore around the world. 

Urbina, a Pulitzer prize winner, formerly with The New York Times and The Atlantic, started his career as an anthropologist who had a deep interest in traveling and seeing places that differed from where he originally grew up in Washington DC, and has since focussed on investigative reporting focussed especially on human rights, labor and environmental crimes.

In 2022, one of the biggest issues our world faces is environmental sustainability and the huge array of crimes happening at sea such as sea slavery, illegal fishing, oil dumping, arms trafgficking, murder with impugnity, stowaway abuse, illegal whaling, ship thievery, and more. 

One of the core problems, according to Urbina, is the lack of regulation to actually enforce these crimes. 

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, there are close to 50 million people currently employed at sea in the maritime industry, according to the Maritime Industry Foundation’s Maritime Knowledge Center. This doesn’t take into account all of the employees working in related maritime jobs on-shore, such as those in the Navy or working at the docks. 

Speaking to the current regulations, Urbina told The Jerusalem Post that “...the few laws and regulations that do exist which speak to offshore governance, are anemic and murky at best, with any true mechanism of enforcement.”

Continuing, he said that even with the high volume of employment at sea, “...the stories about these people and from this watery realm that covers two-thirds of our planet are rare. As an investigative journalist, it seemed like a ripe opportunity to tell stories that otherwise weren’t being told. Having previously worked in the maritime space, I knew there was quite the list of fairly urgent concerns and egregious abuses happening offshore.”

Back in 2015, Urbina wrote a series called “The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier” that discussed in great detail the lawlessness on the high seas. His series captured the attention of Netflix and Hollywood activists like Leonardo DiCaprio, who encouraged him to write a book based on his series. 

Taking a two-year book leave from The New York Times, Urbina traveled through Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East alongside Brazil’s award-winning photographer Fabio Nassimento, chonicling a diversity of crimes offshore, including the killing of stowaways, sea slavery, intentional dumping, illegal fishing, stealing of ships, gun-running, standing of crews, and murder with impunity.

When it comes to focusing on sustainability issues, Urbina referenced his own procluvity in looking for those “hidden costs.”

“Regardless of the industry you are in and the product/trend you are following, there are invariably hidden variables that make it cheaper, easier, and more efficient than they actually are,” he notes.

For example, how is it possible that a can of tuna is offered at the low price it is? It seems impossible, no?

How can it make economic sense that we pull squid from California waters, ship it to China for processing and reporting, and then ship it back to Red Lobster in Los Angeles? It seems impossible, and it probably is. 

At the end of the day, it’s crucial to look for those hidden costs and who actually pays them, which will help clarify the difficulty and often, impossibility of these scenarios. 

In 2019, Urbina launched his latest venture, The Outlaw Ocean Music Project, a first-of-its kind initiative that invites artists from around the world to create music inspired by Urbina’s field recordings and reporting - spanning from electronic and ambient, to classical and hip-hop, which seeks to capture the emotions and raise awareness of the critical offshore issues described in his book.

Enlisting over 500 musicians from more than 60 countries, the project has taken Urbina’s investigative journalism to the next level and turned them into music heard by millions of listeners worldwide on platforms like Spotify and Pandora.

While recent reports have spoken to complaints voiced by a number of musicians about them not receiving their fair share of the royalties, Urbina wasn’t shy about addressing them with JPost, describing the “initial presentation” of the complaints which were broadcast in a video to be “utterly inaccurate and unfair.”

He continued that “...in response to these complaints, we molded the contract so that 100% streaming revenue would now be directed to the musician and the non-profit would receive none of that money. We also offered musicians that were unhappy with the performance of the project to exit with no negative consequence to them. In other words, they were allowed to take the music with them, and republish it elsewhere, even if we had not recuperated our investment in its promotion. These steps felt fair and seemed to have placated those few musicians who expressed their unhappiness.”

Urbina also noted that of the initial 500 musicians in the project, “more than 450 remain and many of them have written to us saying they have always been very satisfied with their participation in the project, and have expressed their desire to continue being a part.”

This article was written in cooperation with Digital Nod