Four Democratic congressmen have written to officials at the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration claiming that Hawaii’s longline fishing fleet is operating illegally by employing — and in some cases possibly abusing — foreign fishermen.

The congressmen said fishing boat owners who are not in “compliance with the law” should not be allowed to sell their products.

Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva’s staff convened a forum about the matter on Capitol Hill last week. Activists at the event, who described what was happening as modern-day slavery, advocated a boycott of tuna until the alleged abuses stop.

Fishermen watch a rally in July from a longline fishing vessel at Pier 38 in Honolulu.
Fishermen aboard a longline fishing vessel at Pier 38 in Honolulu watch a rally in July in opposition to the expansion of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

The letter was signed by Grijalva, ranking Democratic member of the Natural Resources Committee; Jared Huffman of California, ranking Democratic member of the Water, Power and Oceans Subcommittee; Peter DeFazio of Oregon, ranking Democratic member of the  Transportation Committee and Infrastructure; and John Garamendi of California, ranking Democratic member of the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee.

It was addressed to Adm. Paul Zukunft, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, and Kathryn Sullivan, under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator, and was delivered Monday.

“This illegal activity does not represent American values and has dealt a blow to U.S. credibility as a global leader in fighting (illegal, unreported and unregulated) fishing and human trafficking,” the congressmen wrote.

John P. Connelly, president of the National Fisheries Institute, a trade group, told Civil Beat the industry is looking forward to the response by the Coast Guard and NOAA, saying that it would allow a “clarification” of employment law affecting foreign fishermen working in Hawaii.

No one in Hawaii’s congressional delegation signed the letter. The signatories were on the House Natural Resources and Transportation and Infrastructure committees. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard does not serve on either of those committees and Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, who was recently elected, has not yet received her committee assignments.

The employment practices aboard the ships came to light as a result of an Associated Press investigation that found foreign workers employed by the fishing fleet were being held under abusive conditions.

Tuna is laid out for fish buyers at the Honolulu fish auction. Ahi is one of the foods that tops the list of food-poisoning outbreaks in Hawaii.
Tuna caught by Hawaii’s longline fleet are laid out for fish buyers at the Honolulu fish auction. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Published in September, the report found that some workers were being held in prison-like captivity at the piers in Honolulu and San Francisco when the ships are being unloaded. When at sea, the AP reported, the fishermen worked up to 20 hours a day at wages as low as 70 cents an hour. Some have been unable to get proper medical care when they were ill or injured, the report stated.

Fishing industry executives have said they are investigating the allegations and that most fishermen employed by the fleet are managed humanely.

The fishermen are mostly citizens of Indonesia and the Philippines. The fishing fleet uses employment brokers to recruit them as contract workers. They do not hold visas that would allow them to enter the United States legally.

The AP report prompted elected officials to question how and why the workers were being employed and mistreated. Officials at the U.S. Labor Department promised to investigate, but said that they had limited enforcement authority because fishermen are excluded from the Fair Labor Standards Act, which is the primary wage-and-hour protection for people working in the United States.

Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii is working with the Labor Department to find ways to give “immediate relief for the foreign crew members,” said spokesman Michael Inacay.

Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono, meanwhile, plans to introduce legislation in the next congressional session that would give the fishermen temporary work visas to allow them to safely and legally enter and exit the United States and provide them with better workplace protections.

Under current federal law, U.S.-flagged vessels are required to hire crews that are at least 75 percent U.S. citizens. An exemption added to the law about 30 years ago allows ships to use foreign crew members if they are seeking “highly migratory species,” such as marlin, shark, sailfish and swordfish.

The congressmen acknowledge in their letter that tuna qualifies as highly migratory. But they said the Hawaii longline boats catch “significant quantities of mahi mahi, wahoo, moonfish and sickle pomfret,” which they said do not qualify for the exemption.

They wrote that ship owners also should be required to certify that American workers were unavailable for hire, and that the foreign workers should be required to hold H-2B visas.

H-2B visas are temporary, nonagricultural work permits that are used for short-term, seasonal jobs at places like resorts, cruise ships and theme parks.

The congressmen asked Zukunft to “take immediate enforcement action to ensure that these vessels comply with U.S. manning requirements.”

They asked Sullivan to use NOAA’s authority under the Lacey Act, which bans illegal trafficking of fish or wildlife, “to prevent interstate and international commerce in fishery products landed from these vessels.”

Connelly, president of the fishing trade group, said his group is looking forward to receiving what he called a “clarification of whether the exemption is being properly applied.”

“We want clarification from NOAA and the Coast Guard, before taking any steps on bans or anything else important, for regulatory agencies to clarify any misunderstandings” that might have become common in the fishing fleet, he said.

Read the letter from the congressmen below:

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