HONOLULU — Federal officials cannot enforce a contract being proposed by the commercial fishing industry as a solution to concerns about foreign fishing crews in Hawaii, leaving the industry responsible for enforcing its own rules.
Federal and state officials met with vessel owners, captains and representatives from the fleet Thursday at a pier in Honolulu.
The normally private quarterly meeting was opened to media and lawmakers to discuss conditions uncovered in an Associated Press investigation that found some foreign fishermen had been confined to vessels for years.
U.S. Custom and Border Protection “does not review contracts, we just make sure that these fishermen … are employed on the vessel,” said Ferdinand Jose, Custom and Border Protection supervisory officer. “Whatever you negotiate … is between you folks, not us.”
The Hawaii Longline Association, which represents fishing boat owners, created a universal contract that will be required on any boat wanting to sell fish in the state’s seafood auction.
A loophole in federal law allows the foreign men to work, but it exempts them from most basic labor protections. Because the men do not have visas, they have no legal standing to enter the United States and therefore must not leave the secured piers where they are docked. The entire system by which the fishermen are allowed to work on American-owned, American-flagged vessels contradicts other state and federal laws.
The AP investigation discovered some men were living in squalor, forced to use buckets instead of toilets, and suffered running sores from bed bugs. The AP also found that federal officials issued two men from Indonesia who worked in Hawaii waters special visa designations for victims of human trafficking, but officials said Thursday that despite many allegations over the years, they have not found any instances of trafficking in the fleet.
“Certainly, the nature of the fishing industry makes it susceptible to labor trafficking, and that is one of the reasons we have these meetings,” said Joanna Ip, special agent in charge for Homeland Security Investigations in Hawaii. “We have received many allegations that could be construed as human trafficking … but we haven’t come across a case yet.”
Of the 167 fishing vessels in the fleet, 143 of them employ a total of about 620 foreign men. About 20 owners or their representatives showed up for the meeting on Thursday.
The foreign men are allowed to leave their boats if they want to end their contracts, have disputes or need to return to their home countries for emergencies. Federal officials will parole fishermen who need to enter the United States, which allows them to be escorted off the vessels and flown off the islands.
In 2015, there were “663 total paroles for various reasons: medical needs, a need to go to the consulate to renew a passport , or, ultimately, parole for immediate departure,” said Custom and Border Protection’s Brian Humphrey, the director of the San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, field offices, which oversees Hawaii. Of those, 296 paroles were issued for fishermen whose contracts expired and they wanted to return home or for men who wanted to leave early.
“If they want to leave before their contract expires, that’s not our issue to argue. If someone tells us they want to return home, we will make accommodations,” he said.
But vessel owners hold the men’s documents, and getting back home can be expensive. Boat owners on Thursday said they always pay for crews to return if they have to, but the AP investigation showed at least one fisherman from Kiribati had deductions from his pay including $1,300 for airfare, $1,800 to pay for his replacement and $2,100 for breaking a captain’s computer.
Workers are paid a fraction of what other U.S. fishing fleets pay their mostly American crews. Some of Hawaii’s workers make less than $5,000 a year, while experienced American crew members in Alaska can make up to $80,000 a year.
Federal law requires that U.S. citizens make up 75 percent of the crew on most commercial fishing vessels in America. The fleet in Hawaii has an exemption carved out years ago, largely by lawmakers no longer in office.
To many of the workers, the meager pay is good compared with what they would make in their home countries, and many fishermen return to the fleet year after year to work and provide for their families.
On Wednesday, Hawaii state Rep. Kaniela Ing held a public meeting at the state Capitol on the issue. Ing and other lawmakers pressed representatives from the fishing industry and government agencies about what can be done to increase oversight and improve conditions in the industry.