Exploring lawlessness on the high seas opened a window into a dark world. On the Outlaw Ocean, stowaways are cast overboard and left to die hundreds of miles from land. Workers are enslaved through debt or forced onto ships, sometimes for years. Hardly anyone is held accountable for the thousands of seafarers, fishermen and migrants who die every year because of unsafe vessels, territorial disputes and violence aboard ships. Murder is committed on camera, witnesses pose for selfies, footage is posted online, but no one investigates. Ships intentionally dump more oil and sludge into the ocean every three years than the Deepwater Horizon and Exxon Valdez spills combined. Reporting this series over the past 20 months, I found that crimes at sea result not from an absence of law, but from a lack of enforcement.
I traveled last year to Palau, which, in trying a different approach to exert some control over its waters, quickly found itself in a David-and-Goliath battle â€” one that I chronicled in a Times Magazine story this week. Palau is an archipelago nation in the western Pacific that is barely as big as Philadelphia; with just one patrol ship, Palau has been trying to police waters the size of France, and itâ€™s up against an onslaught of hundreds of foreign poacher ships. Can Palau win? What might its efforts teach the rest of the world about ocean conservation?
My reporting was motivated by more complex questions as well. For example, I wanted to find out if there is a connection between the subpoverty wages paid to workers on tuna boats and the near obliteration of the global shark population. I also wondered how it is possible that researchers now predict there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050. Despite the focus on illegal fishing, might overfishing be an even bigger problem? (After all, four out of every five fish that turns up on an American dinner plate is legally caught.) This last is a particularly thorny and high-stakes question because it shifts attention from offshore scofflaws to Western and Asian consumers (What do we eat?), and to the governments that write the rules (How much fish can be taken from the sea?).
The worldâ€™s oceans are a mess partly because of this lawlessness â€” some countries lack the political will, others the resources to intervene. Palau is surrounded by super trawlers, state-subsidized poacher fleets, mile-long drift nets and predator buoys, all of which are rapidly depleting regional fish stocks. Climate change, which drives mega-cyclones, ocean acidification, rising sea levels and warming marine temperatures, also plays a big role.
The Palauan officers I shadowed were well aware that theirs is a Sisyphean task. At one point during a night patrol about 40 miles offshore, these officers sat in the wheel room of the Remeliik, the countryâ€™s lone patrol ship. One of them mentioned the name Elias Camsek Chin, sparking laughter from the others. They explained that when they seize an illegal fishing boat and arrest the crew, the officers typically take up a clothing collection for the deckhands, who tend to have little to wear. A former senator and vice president of Palau, Mr. Chin is known as a tireless campaigner, who often hands out election T-shirts, many of which end up in the officersâ€™ donation pile. The officers told me that the Remeliik stops at least one boat a year on which crew members sport â€œVote for Camsek Chinâ€ T-shirts, one of the officers said. â€œThese guys just keep coming back.â€
On a break from sea patrols, I flew on a Cessna to Angaur, a speck of an island in Palauâ€™s far south. My pilot was Stephan Schulz, a pale, baby-faced German missionary, who works for a group called Pacific Mission Aviation that takes food, medical help and the word of God to outer-island people. Equipped only with binoculars, the missionary pilots have also been helping Palau police its waters and have contributed to a half-dozen arrests over the past few years. Aerial surveillance is the most expensive and effective method for patrolling the sea, but Palau lacks its own aircraft.
We landed on a dirt runway carved into a thick jungle plateau and drove to the dock where a dozen men, mostly self-described fishermen, sat around talking about the local monkey population, which, they said, had grown out of control. The monkeys were stealing from their gardens, invading homes.
We inspected the only boat on the island that was big enough to carry residents to the capital. It was broken down, as it is most of the time. We toured a school and saw donated computers â€” of limited use because the island has no Internet service.
Along the way, the teacher, the shopkeeper, the dock mechanic and others quietly pulled Mr. Schulz aside to remind him of things they needed him to bring next visit: batteries, antibiotics, lined booklets for the coming school exam.
â€œPretty uneventful,â€ Mr. Schulz said as we flew back to Koror, Palauâ€™s most populous island. Mr. Schulz seemed embarrassed that he could not have shown me more. I replied that it simply seemed as if Angaur was a place where time stood still. He agreed. The problem is that bigger forces in the waters all around Angaur continue to grow.