Hawaii longline industry leaders say they have formed a task force and hired an expert on slavery in response to media reports about human trafficking, forced labor and poor working conditions aboard some of their boats.
“We’re trying to get a sort of fleet assessment, get our arms around the problem and see where we’re going to take it,” said Jim Cook, who owns several longline fishing boats and serves on the Hawaii Longline Association board of directors.
He said Monday that the goal is to weed out the “bad actors,” in part by requiring a universal crew contract that incorporates international norms to address forced labor. That contract is being finalized and should be “ready to rock” in the next couple days, Cook said.
Starting Oct. 1, the Honolulu Fish Auction won’t let fishermen unload tuna and swordfish unless they have a signed contract as well as copies of their passports and I-95 Crewman’s Landing Permits from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
“The auction has taken a zero-tolerance stance for fishing vessels involved in forced labor,” said Michael Goto, a task force member from the United Fishing Agency, which runs the fish auction.
The task force also includes John Kaneko, program manager of the Hawaii Seafood Council, Khang Dang, president of Quota Management, and Katrina Nakamura, who was also hired as a consultant to provide guidance to the industry. She has developed criteria to address working conditions, such as amount of time off, whether the employee is bonded by debt and where the payments for their work are going.
The Associated Press reported Sept. 8 that commercial fishing boats based in Honolulu are hiring workers from poor Pacific island nations and Southeast Asia, sometimes paying them as little as 70 cents an hour, making them defecate in buckets and exposing them to injuries.
“This fishery has proven itself over the years to be responsive and an industry leader in meeting the challenges arising from new information about fishery impacts on fish populations and protected species,” Kaneko said in the release. “The allegations of labor abuses present a serious and new challenge, and the industry is rallying to respond quickly.”
The problem is not new, however. KHON reported about it in 2013, and there were government reports about the broader issue of human trafficking in the seafood industry prior to that.
Cook said the TV news story did not garner much attention three years ago and that tighter restrictions have come into play since then from the Department of Homeland Security.
Longline fishing companies are allowed to hire mostly foreign crews due to an exemption in federal law. But those foreign employees are not permitted to leave the boats when they come to port in the U.S. This has led to a situation where the workers are effectively held captive in some cases, according to the AP report.
“I am confident that through this process we will ferret out any vessel from the fleet that is involved in forced labor, labor abuse or substandard working conditions and treatment of the crew,” Kaneko said of the industry’s multi-pronged response.
Cook said he ultimately sees a third-party system coming into play, a person or entity not connected to the industry that would provide outside oversight.
In recent talks with big-box retailers that sell some of the ahi caught by the longliners, he said that’s the move that they see as necessary to appease their concerns.
Whole Foods stopped buying fish from the auction last week if it was caught by a foreign crew until it can be assured there are no forced-labor issues, according to media reports.
There are roughly 140 longline vessels in the fleet and some 700 crew members. The fishermen mostly catch bigeye tuna, one of two fish known as ahi in Hawaii, the other being yellowfin. The bigeye is sold to sashimi markets and restaurants around the state — it’s especially popular among residents during the holidays — and is also exported to the mainland.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection has privately met twice at Pier 17 and Pier 38 in Honolulu with foreign crewmen — no owners or captains present — to inform them of the allegations of forced labor and to provide a safe forum for them to alert the agency if they had any complaints, according to the Hawaii Seafood Council.
The task force members want Customs and Border Protection to share its findings about the allegations of forced labor.
“The fishing industry has taken immediate action since Sept. 8 to quickly put into place a system of checks and balances to protect the foreign crewmen and to make certain that no fishing vessels in the Hawaii fleet are using forced labor or abusing the crew,” Cook said.