A new Hawaii Supreme Court decision upholds the local longline fleet’s reliance on some 700 foreign fishermen who can’t legally leave the dock when their boats arrive in Honolulu Harbor.

Specifically, the opinion, released Thursday, ruled that it’s OK for state officials to grant commercial licenses to those fishermen confined to the pier, even though they have no legal status in the U.S.

It’s permissible, the court said, because Hawaii’s fleet of 140 or so longline vessels fish for ahi and other fresh seafood only in the deep ocean — not in the state-designated waters closer to shore.

The fleet’s catch has been valued at more than $100 million annually.

United Fishing Agency's Wilbur Caliri receives a load of fish from a fisherman to be sold at the morning's auction to seafood buyers in an open competitive bidding environment Wednesday, December 5, 2018. Every day starts early on Pier 38 where fishermen can be found six days a week unloading their fresh catches to be sold at the Honolulu Fish Auction. (Civil Beat photo Ronen Zilberman)
Longliner crews handle a load of fish to be sold at auction to seafood buyers. A new court opinion upholds the local industry’s reliance on foreign fishermen who can’t leave the pier and have no legal standing in the U.S. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2018

Malama Chun, a Native Hawaiian waterman from Maui, has been challenging the longliners’ business model before the state’s land board and its courts since 2017. He and others argue that the unusual practice leaves those fishermen, who mostly hail from Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Kiribati, vulnerable to labor abuses.

Chun’s lawyer, Lance Collins, acknowledged Monday that the court’s decision wasn’t the “big win” they had sought to upend the longliner practices. However, the legal battle did help spur some changes to the fishermens’ situation, he added.

Last year, state leaders passed into law Act 43, which lifted the requirement for each fisherman aboard a vessel to have a commercial license in order to sell their catch. Now, just one license is required per vessel, covering everyone aboard.

The new law further requires that the longline vessel operators file reports with detailed information on each of the crew members aboard. Collins said that will help curtail potential human trafficking within the industry – and that Chun’s legal challenge helped make it possible.

“We think that … it has curbed the extreme excesses of the exploitative labor processes,” Collins said. The results of Chun’s legal challenge are not a “cure all,” but they’re a “small step toward righting the ship,” he added.

Meanwhile, the Hawaii Longline Association said it was pleased with the Supreme Court opinion.

“This is the third time this question has been reviewed legally, and in all three occasions HLA and the state of Hawaii has prevailed,” said Eric Kingma, the association’s executive director.

Eric Kingma: “This is a tough job. It’s a dangerous job. But it’s also one that’s in high demand for these foreign workers for the compensation they receive.” Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2020

“It’s pretty cut-and-dry that the state has been issuing these licenses properly and legally,” Kingma added.

An Associated Press investigation in 2016 found that many of those fishermen live in terrible conditions. Following the scrutiny from that report, the HLA developed a crew handbook and code of conduct for decent work aboard the Hawaii-based longline vessels, and a standardized crew contract across the fleet, among other measures to help address the concerns, Kingma said.

The industry also developed a “crew grievance committee,” composed of vessel owners, community liaisons and local groups that interact with the foreign fishermen, and other parties, that meets quarterly to discuss any employment issues that arise, Kingma said.

In the three years or so since that committee formed, there have only been relatively minor issues, such as disputes over payment or conflict with managers, Kingma said. He added that he’s not aware of any human trafficking incidents within the fleet.

Local longliners have been employing the foreign workers for the past 30 years, according to Kingma. Those crews typically sign contracts for a year or longer to work on the fishing boats. The HLA would prefer if those fishermen could get visas to enter the U.S., but that would require action from Congress that remains highly unlikely, he added.

“This is a tough job. It’s a dangerous job. But it’s also one that’s in high demand for these foreign workers for the compensation they receive,” Kingma said.

Nonetheless, a 2019 report into the Hawaii longliner practices by the Georgetown Law Human Rights Institute found that the steps taken by the industry to address labor concerns were “insufficient to address the vulnerabilities identified in the AP reports.”

“Fishermen continue to face harsh working conditions,” the Georgetown report stated, after its authors spoke with more than 40 foreign crew members docked at piers 17, 36 and 38 in the harbor. “Multiple sources commented on the fact that employers fail to provide fishermen with basic necessities — including adequate food, water, medical care, clothes, toiletries, and even safety gear.”

Read the Supreme Court’s opinion here:


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