I remember going fishing off the coast of South Carolina when I was 11 or 12. I spent most of the time curled up in a ball, totally seasick. Later in the day, a shark was gutted on the deck.

As you can guess, I didn’t grow up in a seafaring family. That was probably my first time on rough waters.

Some people’s lives revolve around the world’s oceans. They spend months or, in some cases, even years at a time out on the open sea.

Maritime life is fundamentally different from life on land.

Whereas land dwellers tend to abide by a strict set of laws and regulations, life at sea is relatively unconstricted and fluid in a legal sense.

Countries often lack the willpower and resources to enforce maritime law, creating a culture where crimes go unpunished.

This lawlessness is critical to the issue of poverty. The whole world depends on the fruits and passageways of the ocean. Millions of people directly support their livelihoods through oceanic activity.

The vast majority of sea vessels are responsible and law-abiding. But a minority spurn regulations and cause lots of problems.

The last thing the world needs is for the ocean to be treated like a wasteland.

Here are 8 things that people routinely get away with out on international waters:

1) Water pollution
I was shocked when I learned about this. Ships intentionally dump more sludge and oil in the ocean than the amount that has been spilled by global corporations, accidents which commanded headlines and major outrage. These boats intentionally spill...without any expectation of punishment.

Estimates range from 70 to 210 million gallons of dumped waste oil each year.

Image: Flickr: NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center

This pollution affects everything living in and depending on the ocean. Before you think land-dwellers are guiltless here, read my colleague’s piece on the colossal garbage patches collecting more plastic each day.

2) Air pollution
As land-based air pollution is shrinking, water-based air pollution is growing.

By 2020, shipping vessels will be the single biggest air polluter in Europe. Egregious land polluters are regularly charged with criminal wrongdoing, but ships are rarely confronted.

3) Kidnapping/raiding
Kidnapping is a major problem. Mostly poor victims with few connections are stowed away in grimy conditions, sometimes never heard from again.

The migrant crisis flowing from Northern Africa into Southern Europe regularly involves kidnapping. Desperate people seeking better lives are often ransomed for outrageous amounts.

Image: Flickr: EU Commission DG Echo
The Rohingya are especially vulnerable as they search for asylum from religious persecution. 

4) Labor exploitation
Ship owners sometimes get away with paying their crews next to nothing due to labor laws that are rarely enforced. This can lead to a cycle of total dependence as crew members struggle to make enough money for other opportunities.  

5) Slavery
The level after labor exploitation is flat-out slavery, where crews receive nothing for their work and live in miserable conditions.

6) Murder
Thousands of suspected murders occur--and go unpunished--each year on open waters.

7) Resource exploitation
Fish populations are being destroyed globally. Illicit fishing vessels and unsustainable practices flout regulations and guidelines. This can lead to severe shortages in the future.

8) Avoiding debts
Rather than pay debts, some owners keep their ships on the water and refuel at unregulated ports.

The oceans are far too important to be treated like a wasteland. They transport the vast majority of the world’s goods. They provide us with so much food. And, on an even more basic level, they are beautiful places hosting beautiful ecosystems.

World leaders have to step up and commit themselves to stronger law enforcement on open waters.

Otherwise, some of the world’s most vulnerable populations will see their situations degrade further. If laws are enforced on a global level, then these populations will inevitably see their situations improve. 


Defend the Planet

8 Things People Get Away With On International Waters

By Joe McCarthy