The Outlaw Ocean Podcast

Episode 5

Waves of Extraction


Steel Drums Playing


Ian Urbina: I got a call from Peter Hammarstedt, one of the captains on the Sea Shepherd ship, from the chase of The Thunder. And he mentioned that they were doing a patrol off the coast of West Africa, specifically in the waters of this tiny nation called The Gambia. And he wanted to know if I might want to come in and see what they're up to.

Voice over Speaker: We're calling the government of the Gambia to listen to our people as they march right now. The land belongs to the people, not to the companies. Thank you very much. All power to the people.

Cheering and Clapping

Steel Drums Playing

Ian Urbina: West Africa in particular is an interesting place just because it's one of the few places in the world that still has pretty robust stocks, fish stocks. And so it is a magnet for foreign, commercial, industrial scale ships. What Sea Shepherd was interested in doing was empowering the Gambians to police their own waters and to just see how many foreign vessels are out there and what are they up to?

Banging against Wood and Steel Drums

Ian Urbina: Episode five. Waves of Extraction.

Indistinct Chatter

Ian Urbina: This is what…

Man Talking to Ian: That’s what is angelfish.

Angelfish. And what do we have here?

Man Talking to Ian: This one is ladyfish.

Ian Urbina: Ladyfish.

Man Talking to Ian: You see? This ladyfish. I'm selling it for 850.

Ian Urbina: There's this stark contrast between the two types of players. You've got the local artisanal fishermen. They're typically in these long, wooden, carved out canoe-like things that they have always used to fish. It's usually maybe four of them in one of them, there’s an outboard motor on the back. They go out, you know, eight, ten miles from shore. These are hand thrown nets. They bring the fish back. Typically, they sell them in these shoreside open table markets and they're for local consumption. By contrast, you have these foreign, commercial, industrial boats. They’re huge. Maybe have a crew of 40 or 50, typically from China and elsewhere in Asia. And these things are trawlers, which means they drag these massive nets behind them. The anger I heard from the locals had different elements. One was the sheer danger of being out on the water when these huge vessels were out there because the local guys were getting run over, quite literally. Not only were their nets getting run over, but their boats were getting run over just because they're so much smaller and at night you can't see them. The second big and major concern really was the disappearance of this kind of fish called Bonga fish, which is used to be so plentiful in Gambia that you could get it for free at the market. Now, Bonga fish was being scooped up by these industrial vessels and it's important to remember that seafood is the main source of protein in this community. They're not raising cattle or chicken for the most part, so they don't have access to other forms of protein. And therefore, the fear is that not only will their children not have a job, you know, a livelihood, but they also won't have food to eat because the oceans will run out of fish.

Waves Crashing and Tense Music

Ian Urbina: The coasts of West Africa-so specifically, Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia-is this zone where 14 factories had popped up over the course of eight, nine years. And all these factories were producing one thing, which is called fishmeal. Fishmeal is essentially fish that you grind up into this powder or pellets, it's high protein, and you use that pellet or powder to feed other animals: livestock, chicken, pigs. But quite often, most of the time, in fact, fishmeal is going to feed other fish, farmed fish, aquaculture, which are grown in near-shore pens or on land. Globally, more than a quarter of all of the fish pulled from the sea ends up as fishmeal. A single plant can process more than 7500 tons a year. In Gambia, there were three fishmeal factories that were consuming huge amounts of the Bonga and other local fish to make this export product, this fishmeal. And one in particular was a plant called Golden Lead.

Tense Music

Ian Urbina: Where are we right now?

Mustapha Manneh: We are at Gunjur, just close to the Golden Lead factory.

Ian Urbina: And this is, this is the Golden Lead factory right here?

Mustapha Manneh: Yes.

Ian Urbina: So I recruited a local journalist and advocate named Mustapha Manneh to help show me around and sort of take me specifically to the factory so I could see it at least on the outside, if not, get inside. The factory is this hermetically sealed in a kind of walled piece of property right by the ocean line. There's a ten foot fence that runs all the way around it. You can't get in. The only way that we actually know anything about what goes on on the inside is because at some point, someone snuck in with a secret camera.

Indistinct Chatter

Car Engine Running

Ian Urbina: Should we put the cameras away, or?

Mustapha Manneh: The cameras should be put away because most of the people still in here are people who get their livelihood from the fishmeal factory, and they are also seeing journalists as the enemy because they think journalists play a critical role in tarnishing the name of this factory.

Ian Urbina: Okay. Alright, thank you.

Ominous Music

Ian Urbina: The Gambian officialdom were consistently saying, “There's no problem here. There's not really a big concern with the illegality of foreign vessels on the water. And we're, we're keeping a close eye on the factory. And the ships are doing what they're supposed to be doing that are fishing along our coast.” And they were really peddling a line that was really misleading and contrasting with what the advocates were saying was the case. So talk to me about what happens to people when they protest or when they try to be popular watch dogs.

Mustapha Manneh: It is actually next to forbidden to speak about fishmeal in The Gambia because of the Chinese interest. Even to plan a protest on fishmeal is a criminal case.

Ian Urbina] Is that right?

Mustapha Manneh: Yeah. People were arrested for a planned protest. (Indistinct).

Ian Urbina: Is that right? This is a plan. They were arrested and taken to an unknown destination.

Ian Urbina: So now why are you so willing to talk openly about the plant in light of what you just said? Don't you feel scared?

Mustapha Manneh: I am never scared because I believe one thing: that is, if Gambia is destroyed, it’s destroyed for us. And if Gambia is made, it is made for us. I will run and come back, but I will never stay away.

Tense Music

Ian Urbina: When you think about the concerns about ocean depletion, about the seas running out of fish, it's easy to fixate on illegal fishing. You know, the players that are breaking laws. But truth be told, it's legal overfishing, industrial fishing that often is licensed and allowed that's the biggest driver of the seas running out of fish.

Eerie Music

Ian Urbina: Around the world, you have governments that are giving permits to companies and fleets to fish at an unsustainable rate. And they are also not checking to see what is the actual consequence of these policies, and that legal overfishing is a harder target to focus on journalistically because it's not a clear crime, but it is a major concern.

Eerie Music

Daniel Pauly: Legal fishing, when it leads to overfishing by a giant industrial vessel, is far more of a problem than the illegal part.

Ian Urbina: Daniel Pauly is kind of seen as the grandfather of fisheries science.

Daniel Pauly: I am Daniel Pauly. I’m a professor of Fisheries at the University of British Columbia.

Ian Urbina: He's the foremost marine biologist on these sorts of issues, and he is my go-to guy when I want to get a big picture sense of what's going on. He is at once both unusually daring in the targets of his research. You know, he's revealed huge flaws in the data that global bodies use to estimate the health of the world's oceans. At the same time, he's a true blue academic. He's very measured, bases everything he says on science and only science and can back up what he has to say and and is very unemotional about the science behind the claims he makes.

Daniel Pauly: In all countries of the world, the biomass, the amount of fish in the water, has declined by a factor of three or four or a factor of ten for big fish. And in fact, the maximum catch was reached in 1996. Since then, the catch declines of the world in spite of increasing fishing effort. So we have wiped out 90% of the big fish, and that is very hard for people to conceive.

Ian Urbina: Technology has caused this line of work, fishing, to change radically in recent decades. With the emergence of nylon nets and bigger nets, longer lasting engines and more efficient engines, sonar and satellite being able to see where the fish are at all times, cold storage so that you can keep the catch fresh for weeks on end and not have to go back to port, you know, all these things meant that the fishing process, the fishing industry was put on steroids, and it just became too good at a job.


Ian Urbina: If you look, for example, at the type of fishing that the Chinese were doing in North Korean waters, and they are pair trawling, which essentially is two ships proceeding in parallel with a mesh wall of net stretched between them, sometimes three quarters of a mile, half a mile across and 800, 900 meters in height.


Ian Urbina: And they're raking the water of everything that is between the two boats. Everything. You know, not just the squid that they're targeting, but all the other species as well.

Daniel Pauly: And if you operate at that scale, you don't operate within the rhythm and the cycles of nature. Industrial fishing can remove from a system the various life forms in it so fast that they cannot be replenished. Basically, industrial fishing is vacuuming the ocean.

Shouting and Tense Music

Ian Urbina: So what we have now is a situation where the easy-to-catch fish are reduced. They exist only in some selected places. Industrial vessels are still going out, but they are mostly subsidized by the countries that send them because they cannot make money otherwise. So subsidization is a big problem in fisheries. These industrial boats, from Europe and Asia especially, they compete against the local fishers who do not have access to big boats and big capital to run them and who use canoes, smaller boats for artisanal fishing. And this competition leads to lots of fish being exported or taken out of the developing world into the big markets of the developed world.

Broadcaster #1: One European vessel fishing off West Africa can take as much in one month as 7000 local fishermen catch in a year.

News Reporter: We've seen so many vessels chasing so few fish, and these depleted stocks mean that in the future, local fishermen are going to miss out.

Daniel Pauly: Our technology is colliding with a nature that sustain us. So our population is expanding and our demand is expanding. But the world that we live in is not expanding. And I do think that we are moving toward a catastrophe.

Ian Urbibna: You lead the way.


Gate Creaking Open

Mustapha Manneh: Golden Lead actually started operation in 2016, and they are the first fishmeal factory in The Gambia and the biggest environmental pollution is coming from….

Ian Urbina: From this factory.

Mustapha Manneh: From this factory, yeah. They have a pipe that is directly in the water and that they used to discard their waste.

Mellow Music

Ian Urbina: Golden lead was worrisome, not just because of the amount of fish that it was taking in, grinding up, and sending abroad for sale, but also because of what it was doing to the local environment. Number one, you had a stench. When you take huge amounts of fish and you boil it and grind it up, it smells. It's ubiquitous. It gets in your clothes. Folks are saying that they couldn't wash it out. They were wearing, you know, tourists even were wearing these white masks pre-pandemic. So that was really strange. It was so bad that people would leave mid meal. They had to burn incense in their own houses. You know, it just deeply affected the quality of life. And I think that contributed to the, the level of anger that I sensed among locals about these plants.

Mellow Music

Ian Urbina: There's this reserve, this nature reserve, adjacent to the factory. And it was this famous biodiverse haven where birdwatchers from all over the world would come. And the lagoon was the crowning jewel within that reserve. And it was one of the few things that Gambia had that would draw tourists.

Mustapha Manneh: It's a lagoon that was first used for dumping their waste.

Ian Urbina: So the waste, this waste used to go to the lagoon?

Mustapha Manneh: Used to go there. What happened is the water. When the first dumped the waste there, it kills all the aquatics within a day. Crabs, fish, everything was completely dead, and it changed the water color instantly. Even all the plants surrounding that place are all dead.

Ian Urbina: Turned red.

Mustapha Manneh: They all die. I mean, there’s no living in the water.

Ian Urbina: Locals told me that the lake turned blood red, sort of a crimson omen, and that everything died, floated to the surface. And within weeks, all the nesting birds that normally could be found there and were a draw for birdwatchers, all those birds had gone. You know, it just seemed symbolic of the extractive, destructive nature of this factory.

Mellow Music

Indistinct Chatter

Car Door Shuts

Ian Urbina: Hello. I’m Ian. I'm the reporter. He's my photographer. I went to interview a biologist, Ahmed Manjang, and he had taken water samples from the lagoon on behalf of the local community, sent it away to labs, and what he found in the lagoon was, you know, double the safe level of arsenic and 40 times the level of phosphates that should be there.

Ahmed Manjang: So that means pumping fishmeal waste into water body is equal to pumping an NPK fertilizer, that is nitrogen, phosphate and potassium. And in dung, we have algae. I think you heard about the red algae bloom when that happened. They panic and they pulled their pipes out. Now they've put it into the ozone.


Ian Urbina: The factory owners ran another pipe from the factory out to the ocean. This pipe got even stronger reaction from the local community. Some advocates showed up with a crowd. They unearthed the pipe. They removed it. And the company then replaced the pipe. And when they replaced it, they took the daring step of adding a Chinese flag next to it, which really offended the locals even more and inflamed the situation even further.


Tense Music

Ian Urbina: Manjang was livid himself, and he pointed out that, you know, under international conventions, a factory of this sort was not supposed to even have been zoned that close to any body of water. Not the ocean, shore, nor the lagoon itself. So this environmental movement emerged around this factory and Mustapha and Professor Manjang and a whole bunch of young, hopeful Gambians, you know, who saw a brighter future for themselves, began organizing around trying to force the government to do something about the plant. And when they engaged one of the key government officials about their concerns, and quite especially the smell among other concerns, this government official said, “You know, that smell is actually the smell of money.”

Sad Music and Indistinct Chatter

Ahmed Manjang: The big guy with the deep pockets have a lot of loyal people, even our politicians. What they do, they pay these fishermen before they even go out to sea.

Ian Urbina: Is that right?

Ahmed Manjang: So, yeah.

Ian Urbina: So they can guarantee…

Exactly. So the locals are left with the leftover now.

Ian Urbina: So let me make sure I follow you. So, at that plant on a daily basis, they're processing, when it's an operation, 500 tons…

Ahmed Manjang: 500 tons.

Ian Urbina: Of Bonga.

Ahmed Manjang: Yeah, on a daily basis.

Ian Urbina: And the Bonga is important in the diet for what reason?

Ahmed Manjang: It’s essential.

Ian Urbina: Why?

Ahmed Manjang: It’s key because that's what everybody can afford. These fishmeal are taking the protein away from our dinner table. So what’s going to happen? We’re going to have a malnourished nation. So you see, we are taking the natural one, giving it to the Chinese. They convert it into powder, send it to China, feed the fish cheap, and bring it back to Gambia.

Ian Urbina: And resell it to you at an expensive price.

Ahmed Manjang: The Bonga fish we, we see now will disappear. And that will be a disaster for this community.

Sad Music and Waves Crashing

Ian Urbina: Fishmeal is this funny product that everyone consumes and probably doesn't know it. You know, anyone who eats seafood is probably consuming fishmeal. At the same time, it's made by capturing wild-caught fish, so fish at sea in huge quantities, netting tons and tons of them and then grinding them up into this goo, drying it out, pelletizing it, or making it a powder. And then it's used to feed aquaculture or fish farm fish. And if you want to fatten those fish up faster, get them to market sooner, make more money on them, then you gotta feed them the right stuff. And the fishmeal is a cheap way to get them fat faster.

Broadcaster #2: You've heard the term farm to table. How about fish farm to table? Many scientists and chefs believe it's the future of food due to a combination of factors, including overfishing in the oceans and a global population that keeps rising.

Unknown Woman: It's a fresh product. It's local. It's going right here to your restaurants. It's really the wave of the future.

Intense Music Ian Urbina: You know, you have this global problem of the oceans running out of fish. And so, the thought was we need to find some really aggressive plays here, that slow ocean depletion, and aquaculture emerged as a hopeful tool in that kit to divert the pressure of fish being taken out of the sea and instead raise the fish ourselves so as to feed the growing global population, its protein needs. And yet the fish meal ends up turning that entire promise on its head.

Intense Music

Daniel Pauly: In the West, when we talk about aquaculture as a solution, we imply that the former aquaculture that we know, and that is the farming of salmon and other carnivorous fish. These fish are not vegetarian, or so they have to be fed with fishmeal or equivalent. That form of aquaculture, it produced big fish like salmon that are liked by the public, in the West, but are not a net production of fish because there is more fish that go into making salmon than the salmon themselves are. The aquaculture sector does not produce fish. It converts fish of low quality, of low value, low price, into fish of high value.

Ian Urbina: At root, you have a protein in, protein out problem here. You have some fish farms that actually take in more fish than they actually produce. So in the case of tuna, for example, you can have a single tuna that will eat 15 times its own weight in fishmeal before it's to the size that it needs to be to be put on the market. So even conscientious consumers who are trying to be, you know, ethical buyers are quite likely eating fish that are taking food off of the tables of Gambians or others in the developing world.

Intense Music

Ian Urbina: It's also important to know that the kind of fish that are targeted for fishmeal are what are called forage fish or trash fish. And it's because it's the smaller fish for which there's the perception that people don't eat it. Well, first of all, that's wrong.

Daniel Pauly: It's disastrous to even think of the word “trash fish,” because these fish are not trash. They are beautiful fish to eat. The idea that a fish fresh from the sea or small fish is trash is actually the beginning of the end.

Ian Urbina: These fish are super essential for the sort of ocean food pyramid. And those forage fish or trash fish are the sort of key ingredient that other, larger fish survive on. And so when you remove those, you're not only taking food off the tables of people that do rely on it, but you're also cutting out the bottom of the ocean food chain. In the case of Gambia, it's even more stark. Bonga is the staple and has always been. For decades and decades, it was super plentiful when you could get it for free at the market. It's a large fish. It's not even that small. It's the furthest thing from a trash fish. As you can imagine, it was the staple.

Somber Music

Ian Urbina:I was distinctly interested in Gambia because it was a perfect David and Goliath story in the sense that Gambia is the smallest country on continental Africa. And here you have these huge forces and players at work, and you had this really interesting interplay offshore and onshore that involved lots of different things: environmental concerns and democratic concerns and foreign capital concerns. So I was eager to get out on the water and see what the reality was.


Ominous Music and Waves Crashing

Ian Urbina: Sea Shepherd was along the coast of West Africa, providing ships to do a patrol of Gambian waters. Gambia, like many developing nation coastal nations, does not have a Navy or Coast Guard, has no boats and therefore really can't patrol its own waters. And so Sea Shepherd came to the area to provide almost a taxi service. It was bringing on board fisheries and Navy officers from Gambia, so it had the authority and also could train them in what this kind of law enforcement looks like.

Ominous Music

Ian Urbina: The Gambian government had set aside nine miles from shore, along the entire coastline were reserved for artisanal Gambian fishermen. Industrial foreign vessels were not allowed to be in those waters. So that's where we were going to first focus. And the point of the patrol was to really just get a sense of what foreign vessels were in Gambian waters and how much fish they were taking. We knew that there was widespread plundering going on along the coast of Gambia. Our mission was to show it.

Tense Music

Unknown Man: Where are we going to?

Peter Hammarstedt: We are going to…

He needs to know, so…

Peter Hammarstedt: Yeah, yeah, yeah. To Oyster Creek Marina. But do you know how to get there?

Unknown Man: Oyster Creek?

Ian Urbina: On the morning of the patrol, under the cover of darkness, we got up, drove to an obscure, out of the way dock. We were doing this super discreetly and quietly because there was fear that if we went through a main port and any other fishermen saw us leaving that they would immediately radio to all the captains at sea and warn them that some sort of law enforcement or military action seemed to get started.

Indistinct Chatter

Peter Hammarstedt: I guess we don't really know what to expect. That's the thing. We couldn't really reconnaissance it beforehand with one of these boats, we risk tipping our hands. So it's a bit of trial and error.

Tense Music, Boat Engine Whirring, and Indistinct Chatter

Ian Urbina: We were picked up by skiffs, also their lights turned off, their radar turned off, and we were taken out to sea and boarded the Sea Shepherd vessel far from shore where no one would see us.

Tense Music

Boat Engine Whirring

Peter Hammarstedt: They've got the net there, their fishing. Film that. They're fishing. What's that? Yeah they are. That’s their net. So now, go round back to the start.

Ian Urbina: The very first boat we saw, we made a run at and went to board it. And when we got close, we immediately realized it was one of the ones that we most wanted to try to find because it was fishing for fish that would go to the Golden Lead factory and other fishmeal factories.

Boat Engine Whirring and Indistinct Chatter

Peter Hammarstedt: Bridge (Indistinct), we are on board.

Voice over Radio: Understood. On board (Indistinct).

Peter Hammarstedt: Got it, thanks.

Ian Urbina: Once I was on board, I tried to get away from the inspectors and the armed soldiers and go below deck initially to show the factory line, where a lot of these guys are working. On board, there were Gambians, Senegalese, mostly, doing the work. So I just want to see what kind of fish they are, and I'm trying to see if these are Bonga, which are the fish that end up at the fishmeal factory and what these guys are collecting. This seems like a lot of the same type of fish. They're all pretty warm. So if they've just caught this stuff, which it seems to be the case, then that would be illegal because that would have meant they were in Gambian waters fishing when they’re not allowed to be. It seems like a lot of boats are coming to West Africa. A lot more boats.

Crew Member: Yeah, all types of boats.

Ian Urbina: And are there, are you guys seeing that and more people getting hired, more boats are showing up on the horizon?

Crew Member: Of course, we do see up to maybe around 25 boats.

Ian Urbina: All around you at night.

Crew Member: All around in the night. (indistinctive) a line of boats. But we don’t know where the boats are coming from, we don't know whether they are from The Gambia or so we don’t know.

Ian Urbina: One worker in particular down there in the factory sort of shot me a look that gave me the sense that he would be willing to talk if I could split him off from the group. I did just that, and he began to tell me that indeed, they had been fishing illegally earlier, and I was perplexed that he was so willing to take this risk of talking with me. And I asked him why he was telling me this, and he said, “Follow me.” And so I followed him through the bowels of the ship and up on deck and up to this, this perch that was sort of covered by a tarp, and you wouldn't easily find it. And he lifted it up and there was this sort of rat's nest of soggy bedding and the like where all the men were living when they weren't working. And he said, “They treat us like animals.” And that was why he was happy to tell me what was really going on. The ship clearly doesn't have the capacity to have this large of a crew. And this is where the overflow guys are living, which are pretty shitty conditions.

Tense Music, Indistinct Chatter, and Boat Engine Whirring

Sea Shepherd Crew Member: Can we see your license?

Speaker 1 The next big revelation was on the bridge of the ship. Sea Shepherd had asked the captain of the fishing vessel to show his logbook. A fishing logbook is a required thing. It's, it's as it sounds. It's where you keep information, what fish you caught, how much, when, using what gear, at what coordinates. It's the basic data that any law enforcement or government officials would use to know what you're doing. So we got the fishing logbook from the captain and opened it up and the first page had data. And then after that, it was utterly blank. He had just not put in any information for, for weeks on end.

Peter Hammarstedt: You can see the last entry here was on the 21st of January. And then there is nothing. This is a dark ship. Who knows where they fished?

Ian Urbina: Gambian officials had repeatedly said that the health of their waters was sound and the fish stocks were robust and nothing to see here. That claim became completely incredible since there was no data in these logbooks and these fishing vessels were not transponding. And it just sort of highlights the fact that Gambia really has no clue of what's happening in its waters and whether they're on the edge of collapse or in healthy shape.

Shouting and Tense Music

Ian Urbina: The captain of the ship was not particularly cooperative, and the Sea Shepherd crew and the Gambian fisheries and Navy officers told him he was under arrest and ordered him to take a ship into port.

Captain Speaking FOreign Language

Peter Hammarstedt: He’s saying that they can't start going to Banjul yet. He needs 2 hours to make some repairs. We've seen them motoring all morning at sea. It's a delay tactic, so he can get on the radio.

Ian Urbina: Okay. The Sea Shepherd folks and the Gambian officials thought he was just trying to buy time, perhaps so that he could call the owner of the fishing boat, and that person probably would then call his friend within the Gambian government and potentially get this arrest order lifted before the ship was brought in and detained. It got pretty tense on board. And eventually the Gambian officers, you know, had to grab the captain by the throat and slap him around a bit to convince him that they meant business and he better get this ship started in the next 20 minutes.

Boat Engine Whirring, Shouting, and Intense Music

Ian Urbina: The captain, you know, understood. And the ship was on its way in 20 minutes.

Tense Music

Peter Hammarstedt: Good. Viking boarding team.

Voice over Radio: Viking.

Peter Hammarstedt: Yeah, can you go up to those two targets on your starboard bow, document them and see what they're doing, report back to us their names? We're going to go for the other target.

Voice over Radio: Understood.

Boat Engine Whirring and Indistinct Chatter

Ian Urbina: The next ship we boarded was even worse. This ship was, again, another ship that was fishing for forage fish. And the conditions on this vessel were shocking. I couldn't figure out where the crew were sleeping, and then one of the crew removed this metal panel to this, this crawlspace, essentially. And he said, That's where we're sleeping. Six, six of you?

Crew Member Six people, we are sleeping in here. We are sleeping.

Ian Urbina: Jesus Christ. So hot. This is, I've never, ever seen this bad. Never.

Crew Member #1: Yeah, I sleep in here.

Crew Member #2: Sometimes you close here, but the water still is coming in.

Ian Urbina: You know, from floor to ceiling was only maybe three and a half feet tall, and it was directly above the engine. And so it was a, it was an oven, truly. It was metal walled and hot as hell. And because it was on deck, when the water came over the sides and splashed the deck when there were high waves, the water would flow into this sleeping area, and there was a power cord there and a power strip that they said had sparked and caught the mattress on fire on repeated occasions. So, it was truly a death trap in so many ways. I felt like I was literally on a modern day slave ship. There’s a lot of water that comes in at night?

Crew Member: Yes.

Ian Urbina: This is worse than I've ever seen it. They have electric fuses. He says this outlet has blown… I’ve been on hundreds of ships at this point and seen the worst of the worst. And yet crawling into that space rattled me.

Sea Shepherd Crew Member: With the fishing logbook, the fishermen, the local fishermen here also testifying that these guys have been trawling very, very close to the shore.

Indistinct Radio Chatter

Sea Shepherd Crew Member: On top of that, the living conditions here are really not for humans, not even for animals, but not for humans.

Somber Music and Water Dripping

Ian Urbina: I think it's fair and accurate to sort of think about what's going on in Gambia's waters and along the whole coast of West Africa as part of a longer history of extraction from this continent and from these people.

Daniel Pauly: Before fisheries, there was mining. Before mining, there was trees that exported in large amount of countries like Gabon, Cameroon. People, my ancestors. My ancestors on my father's side are coming from West Africa. And this exporting Africa for fishmeal is only the last version of this exploitation.

Ominous Music and Water Dripping

Daniel Pauly: These foreign industrial fisheries, they have access to the West African coast through so-called access agreement negotiated privately with a president or republic or with a fisheries minister. And the money, the cost of the access agreement, may end up in Switzerland on a private account. So they have set up their own factories in West Africa. And now, the fish that was going to the market and local consumption is ground up and exported as fishmeal to China. And that is a major, major problem.

Tense Music

Ian Urbina: The driver of this incredible, extractive phenomenon offshore is human consumption. Global demand for seafood in the last half century has seen an explosion. I think that's largely been driven by environmental concerns that relate to chickens, pigs and cattle, right? And so as people have wanted to move away from those forms of protein, they've embraced the healthier, cleaner, better option, in their view: seafood. And that has spiked the amount of demand. You've also seen, in more recent years in Asia, this demand go up. I mean, in Asian culture, seafood has always been pretty robust. But in more recent years, the burgeoning middle class, quite especially in China, has doubled down on seafood. But the Chinese, you know, have overfished their own near-shore stocks and said they can't pull the fish from their own waters. And this is one of the reasons why they're putting more boats further away from China. The Chinese fleet is, you know, three times bigger than the next four largest fleets combined. And in the weeks after I left, Sea Shepherd inspected a total of 14 vessels in Gambian waters. 13 of them were arrested, and all of them were Chinese.

Tense Music

Ian Urbina: The 14 factories that have been built in the last eight years, nine years in West Africa are all Chinese, and the Chinese government has something called the Belt and Road Initiative, which is a huge investment plan to, on the one hand, provide air quotes here, development dollars. So, all the roads and bridges and dams and port projects and fishing license projects. The Chinese are sopping up all those contracts as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, and the fishmeal plants are part of that. So it's striking that in the context of a development project that's meant to invest money that helps these local economies, you actually have, because of hidden costs and because of murky contracts and because of a lack of the local players in Gambia to actually police the terms that they've signed on to and ensure that they're signing on to deals that actually are to their benefit, for all these reasons, you have this development agenda that's quite the opposite. Why do you think they can get away with operating above the law?

Mustapha Manneh: Because Gambia is in serious political debt with China, and in the reality that China have given a lot of loans to Gambia, give a lot of so-called grants to Gambia, polluting the mindset of our politicians. They go out with anything. So because China is involved, this factory will never be closed.

Ahmed Manjang: Development is not only about money, you know. It is a process, and if you force it, it can backfire. And what we are seeing is not development. This is exploitation.

Ominous Music

Ian Urbina: As I was reporting this, I wanted to actually look into the history of ideas, the intellectual history, of perceptions towards the sea. And two things emerged as very relevant to understanding how we got to where we are with regard to overfishing. One was this core perception that fish are a lower form of life. Even in the very word seafood, we categorize this living creature in a way that we don't other types of animals, be they domesticated or not. The very defining term is something we eat. And, you know, fish are just not cuddly. They don't have faces that we can recognize. They're hard to get people to care about. So that element is one thing that makes them easier to kill and eat and consume and disappear.

Eerie Music

Ian Urbina: The second huge concept that has driven us to our current moment is this overall outlook on the seas as sort of a place of tireless, plenty of sea, generous, plenty, you know, self-fulfilling, self-realizing, self-replenishing, plenty. Even in historical documents and, and philosophers of the 19th century, when they would talk about the oceans, it was this place that regenerated itself, and it would produce a constant stream of product of seafood that you could never deplete. And that core concept as well has caused us for centuries really to feel like there was no cost to taking any number of fish or marine life from the oceans.

Eerie Music

Ian Urbina: You actually don't need to look that far back to see this very same notion put forward even by scientists themselves. As recently as 1954, there's this famous book called The Inexhaustible Sea, you know. And in it there's this quote that grabbed me, you know, quote, “As yet, we do not know the ocean well enough. Nevertheless, we are already beginning to understand that what it has to offer extends beyond the limits of our imagination, that someday men will learn that in its bounty, the sea is inexhaustible.” This is a deeply dangerous myth. It's the same misconception that has caused us to end up with climate change, but just taken below the waterline. We have learned a huge amount in the last decade or two about the oceans. And resoundingly what we've found, what fisheries scientists have found, is that it's anything but inexhaustible.

Somber Music

Daniel Pauly: The sad thing is that we know how to deal with fisheries. Fishery science is really straightforward. If you know your catch, if you know who is taking what, you can actually determine how much should be taken to sustain a catch, a substantial catch for longer. Why can't you do it? Because governments fail or are unable to track the catch that is really made, to track the operation of boats, and to limit the operation of vessels, especially foreign vessels, in their waters. And if the government are so weak, vis a vis the foreign countries, then the foreign country would behave like a bunch of thieves inside a bank, you know, with the guards gone. So what is a simple problem, which is to manage fisheries, becomes an unsolvable mess.

Voice Echoes, Somber Music, Waves Crashing, and Birds Squawking

Ian Urbina: When I started working on this, I was decidedly focused on the concerns that exist above the waterline, the human concerns. But, you know, obviously, a lot of my reporting involved putting myself under the tutelage of scientists and regulators and ocean conservation experts and, you know, immersing myself in their outlook sort of sensitized me to this place, not as this sprawling, watery desert, this kind of expanse of differing shades of blue, but rather a really vibrant, diverse, complicated and alive realm. I began viewing the marine environment more as a living organism, if you will, and that pulled my attention increasingly below the waterline.

Pensive Music and Water Bubbling

Indistinct Radio Chatter

Ian Urbina: In the last five years of reporting, I had two opportunities to go underwater in a sub down to the ocean floor. Off the coast of Brazil in particular, I went in a sub and we were taking a look at coral reef structure.

Sub Operator: And we will close hatch, hold the vacuum, have you set the bellows, and we will launch the sub.

Thud, Water Bubbling, and Eerie Music

Ian Urbina: It was mind altering. I mean, the closest thing I could compare it to is when you're in a plane and you're flying through the clouds and you know you're moving, but you have a hard time measuring it or understanding it because you're in the midst of this blinding thing.

Voice over Radio: (Indistinct) At this time, you've got permission to fetch your soft tanks, fetch your soft tanks. Proceed to bottom. Let's get that common check at 100 feet.

Ian Urbina: And then when you touch the floor, a cloud of silk surrounds you. And as the cloud of dust settles, you can begin to make out the terrain that looks almost like the moon's surface, at least where we were. And these structures, you know, a coral wall.

Submarine Driver: So here we are at the bottom of the Amazon Reef. We are approaching what looks to be a large mound. And I am here with Ian Urbina, and he's from The New York Times. He wrote a series called The Outlaw Ocean. And together we are exploring this area for the first time.

Ian Urbina: Some of my sources had prodded me to write about coral reef and I had always in my head and even verbally told them that I wasn't that interested in coral reef because they just sounded like glamorized rocks to me, and I just didn't know how to make that narrative more interesting to the public. And then once I got in the sub and went down and saw them, I realized, “Oh, this isn't a thing. This is a universe. And it's alive and complicated and colorful and unknown.”

Submarine Driver: I think one of the defining characteristics of the Amazon Reef so far is that it's not just one type of habitat, but many. We've seen some sandy areas, algae, large coral beds, a lot of sponges in some areas. This is just beautiful. It looks like an aquarium with these brightly colored fish. We have a pretty high diversity, quite a few different kinds. That one with a yellow tail, I think that's a damselfish. Really nice spot. And here we are, you know, in the middle of the ocean, far from shore out on the Amazon Reef, where before now, no one had any idea this was here. Very cool.

Soft Music

Ian Urbina: This wall is said to have tens of thousands, if not millions of different species here, a good portion of which we haven't even named or officially discovered. And some of these industrial fishing practices, like pair trawling or bottom trawling, routinely just obliterate the wall in one fell swoop without anyone ever knowing.

Daniel Pauly: You have to understand, we harvest fish in a way that is similar to using bulldozers to catch rabbits. And if you use bulldozers to catch rabbit, you will have no forest.

Pensive Music


VO: On the next episode of The Outlaw Ocean…

[Press room sound] Speaker 6 Virtually every American is familiar with the tragic environmental disaster in Alaskan waters.

Speaker 5 By today, 10 million gallons of oil covered 100 square miles of ocean.

Speaker 3 A large amount of thick, toxic sludge has so far leaked from a Japanese freighter.

Speaker 1 A thousand barrels of oil a day continue to spill.

Speaker 1: And we followed this ship for 27 months. During that journey, when it kept trying to find a dump spot, it three times changed its name, got a paint job. Speaker 4: They knew exactly what they were doing at the time, and they knew how bad it was, and they were trying to cover it up. Speaker 1: It's like this magic, incredible, wonderful gift is our ocean. And through the way that we run our economy and through climate change and pollution, we are undermining the oceans ability to take care of us>>> [Short beat] <<<The only way you could describe the trajectory we’re on is just downright suicidal.


From CBC Podcasts and the LA Times, this series is created and produced by The Outlaw Ocean Project.

It’s reported and hosted by me, Ian Urbina. Written and produced by Ryan Ffrench. Editing and sound design by Michael Ward. Sound recording by Tony Fowler. Our associate producer is Margaret Parsons. Additional production by Joe Galvin and Marcella Boehler.

This episode features music by: Machinefabriek, Antarctic Wastelands, Earthen Sea, Manuel Zito, Louis Futon, Appleblim, Kodomo, Sjors Mans, Bokki, Jai-Jagdeesh, and Melorman.

Their music is available online at The Outlaw Ocean Music Project website and wherever you stream music. Please check out their work.

Additional music by Skot Coatsworth, Britt Brady, Matthew Stephens, Gammatone, and Fábio Nascimento.