A Hawaii state agency has denied a petition to change rules for commercial fishing licenses given to undocumented foreign fishermen.
Department of Land and Natural Resources spokesman Dan Dennison confirmed the board’s denial after a board meeting Friday.
The petition sought more transparency and accountability in the licensing process and was seen by its signatories as a measure to better protect foreign workers in the fleet. The petition came after an Associated Press investigation found hundreds of undocumented fishermen working on the American-flagged boats.
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.
“It was predicted but it’s nevertheless disappointing. The DLNR has really shirked its responsibility in doing an easy fix,” said petitioner Kathryn Xian, who runs the nonprofit Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery.
Department officials had no immediate comment on the ruling, but a spokesman said they would try to respond later in the day.
Over six months, the AP 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.
The petition asked for changes that included certifying that the license applicant understands and has read the document. Petition backers say the foreign fishermen often do not speak English and can’t read the documents they are signing.
In a document signed by Bruce Anderson, the administrator for the department that issues fishing licenses, the department recommended denying the rule changes because the petition focused on labor issues that are outside the department’s jurisdiction.
“We believe that a requirement that the applicant certify that he or she understands the application, or alternatively, certification from a person assisting the applicant that he or she has read the application and translated its terms to the applicant, is unnecessary,” the document said.
“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 Thursday.
State and federal lawmakers promised to improve conditions for the foreign crews, and at least one company stopped buying fish from the boats immediately after the AP investigation.
In a press release in September, Suzanne Case, chair of the department, said “while our jurisdiction only extends to the protection of natural resources, we are certainly very concerned about any human rights violations that are reportedly occurring on the longline fishing fleet, and stand ready to assist in any way possible.”
“The Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery recognizes the importance of a vibrant economy and fully supports Hawaii’s fishing industry, but recognizes strongly that significant steps must be made to reform state licensing rules,” Xian said in her testimony Friday.
“The petition does not ask the BLNR to step out of its jurisdiction into affairs of labor. Rather, the petition urges compliance with Hawaii state law, federal law, and implementation of transparency measures in the fishing license application process,” Xian said.