HONOLULU (AP) — A group of Hawaii residents want to change local rules for issuing commercial fishing licenses and make the process more transparent after an Associated Press investigation found that hundreds of undocumented fishermen work in the fleet.
A federal loophole allows the foreign men to work but exempts them from most basic labor protections, and some residents are concerned that state rules offer little transparency and leave workers in the dark.
State and federal lawmakers promised to improve conditions for the foreign crews, and at least one company stopped buying fish from the boats immediately following the AP investigation.
The petition asks for rule changes that include certifying that license applicants understand and have read the paperwork they are signing, but a state agency recommends the changes not be implemented.
The foreign fishermen who work in the fleet often do not read, write or understand English and therefore cannot legitimately agree to terms of the license, petitioners said Wednesday.
In a document signed by Bruce Anderson, the administrator for the Division of Aquatic Resources, the department recommends denying the rule changes because the petition focuses on labor issues that are outside the department's jurisdiction.
"We believe that a requirement that the applicant certify the he or she understands the application, or alternatively, certification from a person assisting the applicant the he or she has read the application and translated its terms to the applicant, is unnecessary," the document said. "The applicant would be required to comply with all terms and condition of a commercial marine license."
In a statement issued Thursday by the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, Anderson reiterated his comments and discussed the issue further.
"While we are clearly concerned about recent media reports regarding working conditions on fishing vessels, our responsibilities currently involve enforcing DAR (Division of Aquatics) CML (commercial marine licensing) rules and any violations associated with the Joint Enforcement Agreement with NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration," Anderson said.
"It is absurd that DLNR will grant a fishing license in the expectation that the applicant will observe its terms and conditions when the applicant may never have seen or read the original application," said Oahu resident Larry Geller in a statement emailed Wednesday. Geller was among a group to sign the petition.
"Aside from the language issues, the applications are filed by the ships captains and not by the applicant, under current rules. If the DLNR is interested in compliance, it needs to change its inadequate rules," he added.
Over six months, The Associated Press obtained confidential contracts, reviewed dozens of business records and interviewed boat owners, brokers and more than 50 fishermen in Hawaii, Indonesia and San Francisco. The investigation found men living in squalor on some boats, forced to use buckets instead of toilets, suffering running sores from bed bugs and sometimes lacking sufficient food. It also revealed instances of human trafficking.
The report was part of the AP's ongoing global look at labor abuses in the fishing industry, stretching from Southeast Asia to America's own waters. Last year, the AP reported on fishermen locked in a cage and others buried under fake names on the remote Indonesian island village of Benjina. Their catch was traced to the United States, leading to more than 2,000 slaves being freed. But thousands more remain trapped worldwide in a murky industry where work takes place far from shore and often without oversight.
Another of the petitioners, Kathryn Xian, who runs the nonprofit Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery, told The Associated Press Wednesday that the petition is not asking for the department to consider labor issues.
"We are basically trying to lay a foundation for future steps to be made in the licensing process to make it more transparent," Xian said. "What the DLNR fails to understand is that the process by which these undocumented workers 'are assigned' fishing licenses is problematic and possibly unlawful," Xian said in a statement.
The Board of Land and Natural Resources, which will make the final decision, will hold a meeting on Friday that will address the issue.
The Department of Land and Natural Resources, which oversees the various departments, told the AP on Wednesday that it will not comment on the issue until the board has heard arguments from the public and has made its decision.
Federal officials, including Customs and Border Protection, Homeland Security, the Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration plan to hold a meeting with vessel owners later this month to address questions about the foreign workers.