The Hawaii Supreme Court heard oral arguments Friday in a case that has the potential to upend the state’s longline fishing industry that lands about $100 million of fresh seafood each year, most notably ahi tuna.

The case centers on whether the state should continue granting commercial fishing licenses to foreign fishermen who are not legally allowed to set foot on U.S. soil.

An Associated Press investigation in 2016 found that many of these fishermen live in terrible conditions while earning as little as 70 cents an hour.

Cuts of ahi await inspection by competitive bidders at the Honolulu Fish Auction Tuesday, November 20, 2018. This fresh fish display style auction is the only fresh tuna auction in the United States and fish sold here are plated both locally and around the world. (Civil Beat photo Ronen Zilberman)

A scene from inside the Honolulu fish auction where fresh ahi caught by Hawaii’s longline fleet is bought and sold.

Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat

Malama Chun, a Native Hawaiian waterman from Maui, is the plaintiff in the case. He’s argued that the commercial longline industry in Hawaii has infringed on his cultural practices by decimating fish populations in part by perpetuating the exploitation of foreign labor.

If the Supreme Court decides that foreign fishermen who are not legally allowed to be in the U.S. can no longer obtain licenses from the state it could force the 140-vessel longline fleet to find new crews and pay more in wages and benefits.

“What is a total win for Malama Chun?” asked Lance Collins, the attorney who argued the case on Chun’s behalf Friday. “A total win for Malama Chun is that the boat owners pay these fishermen a living wage and that they have full and free access to legal process and medical as needed when they’re in Hawaii.”

California attorney Geoffrey Davis, who represented the Hawaii Longline Association, told the court that any decision that might force the state’s fishing fleet to land its catch elsewhere would hurt the local economy.

“The reality is American citizens don’t want to work on these boats and don’t want to earn the wages that are available,” Davis said. “The foreign workers are an important part of this sector of the economy.”

Their work is even more critical now, he said, as the state tries to recover from the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s the largest single crop in the state and the workers return year after year to work for the tuna boats,” Davis said. “They are experienced, knowledgeable and they make the longline fishing boats safer and more efficient.”

Before you go . . .

For the past several months our nonprofit newsroom has worked beyond our normal capacity to provide accurate information, push for accountability, amplify smart ideas and new voices, and double down on facts and context to write deeply reported local stories.

The truth is, our evolution as a public service news organization over the past 10 years has prepared us for this moment in time, when what we do matters the most.

Reader support keeps our small newsroom afloat. If you value the work of our journalists, please consider making a tax-deductible gift.

About the Author