I've been fascinated by the shipping industry for a while now. My father was in the merchant marines, and I grew up on the Mississippi River where barges still carry coal, grains, and other goods from Minneapolis to New Orleans. It was Rose George's Ninety Percent of Everything that really piqued my interest in the lawlessness of the shipping industry. Using her own journey aboard large container ships as a backdrop, George reveals the surprising truths about shipping: the lawlessness of the high seas, environmental damages, threats from piracy, appalling labor conditions, jurisdictional ambiguities, and suspect financing. According to George, it's cheaper for Scottish fishermen to ship their fish to and from China to have them filleted than to have them filleted in Scotland. There are also myriad legal angles to explore, including the difficulties of enforcing crimes on the high seas when no country wants to take jurisdiction of a case. Almost as curious is how little play the shipping industry gets in mainstream discourse.
I had what an author, Rose George, calls “sea blindness”: a myopia common among land dwellers who view the ocean as a brackish blotch over which cross-continental travelers need to fly to get where they are going. Rarely do shipwrecks, or acts of fatal violence at sea, make the evening news. Ms. George is right: If all the stories of boats meeting calamitous ends instead involved airplanes falling from the sky or coal miners getting trapped underground, “we would probably hear about it.” The Dona Liberta cured me of my sea blindness.
The Dona Liberta works as a case study of the shipping industry as a whole:
As the rusty refrigerator ship moved across two oceans and five seas and among 20 ports, it routinely abused, cheated and abandoned its crew, caused an oil slick nearly 100 miles long, and drew citations from a half-dozen countries for other environmental violations. Creditors chased its owner for millions of dollars in unpaid debts, and maritime watchdog groups listed its parent company as an illegal fishing suspect. Still, the ship operated freely and never lacked for work or laborers.
When wrongdoing occurs, no single agency within a country or specific international organization typically has a sufficient stake in the matter to pursue it. The stowaways on the Dona Liberta, for example, were undocumented immigrants from Tanzania, living in South Africa and brought to shore in Liberia. The ship was owned by a Greek company incorporated in Liberia, crewed primarily by Filipinos, captained by an Italian, flagged to the Bahamas and passing through international waters.