It was on a family trip to Wales that Matthew Ader became engrossed and captivated in Ian Urbina’s bestseller The Outlaw Ocean – an exposé into life at sea in the fishing and merchant navy. He shared the book with his sister, Elizabeth, and afterwards the two decided they could help with one particularly grim aspect highlighted in Urbina’s book – crew abandonment.
The tech-savvy brother and sister have developed a map showing every abandoned case around the world as tracked by the official International Labour Organisation (ILO) database on the matter, supplemented by cases that have been reported in the media.
People still get marooned like we’re in the 18th century
The Aders, who have carried out a number of open-source investigations in recent years, created a spreadsheet, dataset, and interactive map detailing active seafarer abandonment cases.
The map, which went live in September this year and is updated every month, shows hotspots for crew abandonment at the moment include Sharjah, Istanbul, and Malta. The monthly updates, worryingly, show that the scourge of crew abandonment is now back on the rise, having eased off in the last couple of years.
“The map has now been viewed by more than 60,000 people. This has led into conversations with several seafarer rights and welfare organisations,” Matthew tells Splash Extra, saying plans are now afoot to develop the project further. The aim is to find other sources to accompany the ILO database.
“We’re hoping to keep building relationships with people in the industry and be able to track long-term trends of abandonment for researchers, advocates, and legislators,” Elizabeth says, adding that Twitter is where any updates and developments will be announced.
The two knew the shock value of the project they were working on when discussing the issue of crew abandonment with people outside shipping.
Elizabeth recounts telling her best friend about the project before it was published.
“Her reaction is pretty indicative,” Elizabeth recalls. “I think her exact words were, ‘What? People still get marooned like we’re in the 18th century?’ Basically people can’t believe that it’s an issue – and they tend to be absolutely horrified to find out that it is, especially when I’ve explained the conditions that abandoned crews often face.”
As it’s such an issue of neglect rather than anything else it doesn’t often make the front page news, which potentially explains the astonishing lack of awareness, Elizabeth reckons.
“This is why,” she says, “making the problem very visible is such an important first step towards getting it solved.”
As to solving the issue, that is something that will be very difficult, Matthew concedes.
“Pinning down which jurisdiction perpetrators are in is hard, maintaining accountability in a world dominated by shell companies and reflagging is challenging, and coastguard resources are often stretched thin. This is exacerbated by a general lack of political will and the absence of clear villains to prosecute,” Matthew says.
That said, there are useful steps that can be taken, he adds. First, Matthew calls for more funding for monitoring and research efforts into crew abandonment.
The Aders’ map – and the ILO database it draws on – are a good first start. But that data is incomplete and inconsistently updated due to a lack of ILO resources. It also struggles to capture the long-term socioeconomic impacts of crew abandonment.
“A relatively small team with a modest budget could make significant strides in tracking the problem. Such action is critical to resolving the challenge,” Matthew suggests.
Secondly, Matthew urges for better resources for welfare organisations such as Stella Maris and the Deutsche Seemannsmission.
“These groups fulfil a vital humanitarian task on a limited budget. More funding would enable them to improve the quality of life for abandoned seafarers, gather additional information, and conduct effective advocacy,” Matthew says.
Apart from additional resourcing, he reckons there could be benefits from closer integration between existing welfare organisations.
Up next for these open-source investigators? There’s the small matter of Matthew’s final year at university. Beyond that, the pair have been poking into some of the companies on the database that are serial abandoners, but nothing has really come of it yet.
“Our research interests are very much to do with human rights and with finding underreported information and issues to signal-boost. If there’s anything anyone thinks would be a good idea, you’re more than welcome to drop one of us a line on Twitter,” Elizabeth says.
For more details on individual crew abandonment cases, click on the map below.