New effort afoot to address alleged worker abuses aboard Hawaii fishing vessels

Published: Apr. 24, 2017 at 6:02 PM HST|Updated: Apr. 25, 2017 at 5:50 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - There's another effort underway to pressure Hawaii's long-line fishing fleet to stop using foreign fishermen.

The issue drew nationwide criticism because the fishermen are forced to live on their boats even in port and are not protected by minimum wage or worker safety laws.

Efforts by lawmakers to change the rules failed this legislative session, but now Maui attorney Lance Collins is using another tactic.

Collins said the state's system for licensing the fishermen is illegal, and he's filed a petition with the state Land Board on behalf of Native Hawaiian waterman Malama Chun, who argues fishermen are the state's first line of defense when it comes to reporting law breakers or over-fishing.

"His concern is that the state is giving licenses to people who can in no way report anything to any authority for themselves or anyone else" because the fishermen can't technically come ashore, Collins said.

Foreign fishermen only have permission to be in the water -- not on state land -- and come under the jurisdiction of U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency under the Department of Homeland Security.

And each foreign crew member must get a state fishing license in their own name.

Collins said the state should stop issuing those licenses because the fishermen aren't lawfully in the United States.

"Its the plain language of the statute, it's crystal clear, and its been that way since 1949," Collins said.

But Katrina Nakamura, of the Hawaii Seafood Council, said the fishermen's status is a federal issue.

"This is a federal fishery and the fish are caught outside of Hawaiian waters and so there is no impact from the fishery on our Hawaii marine resources," Nakamura said.

This session, lawmakers considered requiring anyone applying for a commercial fishing license to do it in person, but the bill died.

And Nakamura says with some 144 vessels in Hawaii's fleet and about some 700 commercial fisherman, the fleet represents what Hawaii has always been about.

"Hawaii has a tradition of welcoming temporary foreign workers to produce our food. You know, sugar, pineapple, like this is where we come from." Nakamura said.

As for Collin's petition with the land board -- he says his client is also concerned about the broader environmental effects of overfishing.

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