China on the High Seas

Outlaw Ocean founder and New Yorker reporter Ian Urbina discusses illegal fishing, sea slavery, and how unethical seafood ends up on your plate.

Paul Greenberg
9 min readOct 24


A Chinese industrial squid boat. Photo credit “The Outlaw Ocean.”

Ian Urbina has been covering what might be the most mysterious and dangerous place in the world for nearly a decade now. I’m speaking of that vast swath of ocean that lies in between the territorial control of individual nations. These distant waters, usually referred to as “The High Seas” are far from empty. Not only do they teem with marine life, they are also the setting for all kinds of criminal activity that ranges from slavery to oil dumping to unsanctioned whaling to Illegal and unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU). Ian first started to lift the lid off this blackest of boxes in a series for the New York Times called “The Outlaw Ocean.” He would go on to write a book and found a nonprofit with the Outlaw Ocean name. Ian and The Outlaw Ocean Project just keep going and going, growing ever more ambitious in their reporting. This month The New Yorker published his latest investigation — a deep, troubling look at China’s offshore fishing fleet. It was an issue I always knew was huge but one I never personally felt ready to tackle. Ian and his team have tackled it and I was happy to catch up with him this week and see how this miraculous piece of reporting came together. What follows is a slightly edited conversation we had on October 21st.

Paul Greenberg: To begin with, I just want to say congratulations on a really well researched and difficult article

Ian Urbina: Thanks.

PG: How long did it take to do all this?

IU: A little over four years

PG: Did you realize what you were getting into when you started? Did you think it would take four years?

IU: I didn’t realize it would take four years but I knew it would be a doozy because things are so impenetrable when it comes to China. The investigation, as you know, had two distinct parts: Crimes on Land and Crimes at Sea. The on land investigation of forced labor in Chinese processing plants and the connecting of the supply chain dots from problematic ships to plants using forced labor all the way to global brands is what took so long. Getting…



Paul Greenberg

New York Times bestselling author of Four Fish as well as The Climate Diet and Goodbye Phone, Hello World