Hawaii’s commercial tuna fishermen are still reeling from what one of them described as a “public relations snafu” that began last month with media reports of alleged slave-like conditions for hundreds of foreign crew members working on U.S. longline boats.
The Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council took up the issue at its meeting Thursday in Honolulu, explaining steps the industry has taken to ensure workers from the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and Kiribati are being treated fairly and paid appropriately.
But the only formal action the council took was to call on government officials who are investigating the labor issues to also look at the barriers to foreign crew members flying to Hawaii to work.
Commonly known as Wespac, the council manages 1.5 million square miles of ocean in the Central and Western Pacific Ocean and advises the National Marine Fisheries Service on catch limits, endangered species mitigation and stock assessments.
In a Sept. 8 article, the Associated Press reported how foreign crews from impoverished countries are confined to the U.S. boats they work on to catch valuable bigeye tuna for sashimi markets. Some are paid as little as 70 cents per hour, live in poor conditions and face ongoing health challenges such as sores from bed bugs.
Wespac member Michael Goto of the United Fishing Agency called the story a negative piece that was “a public relations hit to the industry.”
He and other Wespac members downplayed problems in the roughly 140-boat fleet of U.S. longliners but underscored they are taking the allegations seriously.
“Things could definitely be better,” Goto said. “But things could definitely be worse.”
Wespac member Michael Duenas of Guam said he’s been on foreign commercial fishing boats owned by China, Japan and other countries.
“The American vessels are heaven for them,” he said of the crew members working on Hawaii boats. “It’s like night and day.”
Goto, influential vessel owners and other industry leaders formed a task force after the AP article was published. They implemented a Universal Crew Contract, which was designed with forced-labor evaluation criteria from the United Nations International Labor Office.
The Honolulu Fish Auction, which Goto manages, has been used as a choke point since Oct. 1, denying services to any vessel unable to demonstrate that forced labor is not being used, according to Wespac. Virtually all commercially caught bigeye tuna first passes through the auction en route to restaurants and supermarkets.
Goto underscored that the only vessel named in the AP article, the Sea Queen 2, is based in San Francisco — not in Honolulu with the the vast majority of the fleet.
Still, he acknowledged a “broken system.”
With most Hawaii longliners unable to find U.S. residents willing to do the hard work at sea, at least for the amounts being paid, the boat owners use a contract agency to find crews of four to six foreign workers.
The longliners then have to go to a foreign port in American Samoa, Canada, Mexico or elsewhere to pick up the workers because the U.S. government does not allow them to fly into Honolulu or other U.S. cities.
“It’s not a very cost-effective method to pick up these crewmen but it’s currently the only way,” Goto said.
The late U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye and, more recently, Sen. Mazie Hirono, have drafted legislation to allow the workers to fly into Honolulu, but Congress never passed it.
Wespac unanimously agreed to encourage “NMFS, in its participation in the multiagency working groups examining fisheries labor issues, request that the law and/or policy that prohibits foreign fishing crew from flying into Hawaii be reviewed as it appears allowing foreign crew to fly into Honolulu would facilitate monitoring and documentation by the Department of Homeland Security and eliminate impacts to Hawaii longline vessels from picking up contracted foreign crew in distant ports.”
The U.S. government also forbids the foreign crew members from leaving the boats they were hired to work on, although in practice some are allowed to venture within a tight radius on land when docked.
Five Hawaii residents petitioned the state Department of Land and Natural Resources last month to amend its rules in a way that makes it easier for the public to know who is catching the fish they are eating.
But state Division of Aquatic Resources Administrator Bruce Anderson has advised the Board of Land and Natural Resources to deny the petition at its meeting Friday.
He said the petitioners’ request does not add value to what the state is already collecting, which includes a copy of the workers’ passport, a commercial marine license and an immigration form from the U.S. government that says they are allowed to work as a crewman but not allowed to go on shore.
“Frankly, we don’t really care who’s fishing,” Anderson said, adding that it’s more a labor issue. “We just want to make sure they’re reporting it appropriately.”
Anderson described the petitioners as a group of “well-known activists.”
“My belief is that this petition was essentially an attempt to shut down the industry,” he said.
Larry Geller, one of the petitioners, took issue with Anderson’s remarks.
“Why in the world would anyone want to shut down the industry? I love fish,” Geller said. “The situation on the ships cannot continue. He needs to get on the right, the moral, the humane and the legal side of this issue.”
Rula Deisher, living marine resources officer with the U.S. Coast Guard, said federal law enforcement officers have been walking the docks in Honolulu, aware of the laws creating the situation requiring foreign crew to be detained on board and recognizing the “chance of abuse.”
She said the Coast Guard works with Customs and Border Protection if contract issues arise, but she was not personally aware of any.
Customs and Border Protection has also taken its own initiative with regard to foreign crews, meeting privately with the foreign workers to learn more about how they were doing. The longline task force is seeking a public statement from the agency about its findings of the alleged forced labor.
Goto and new Wespac member Dean Sensui, who produces the “Hawaii Goes Fishing” show, said the industry ultimately has a PR issue on its hands and needs to do some serious public outreach to change perceptions.
“It’s kind of a public relations snafu right now,” Goto said.