Customs and Border Protection regional director Brian Humphrey stands near fishing boats as federal officials conduct inspections, Oct. 20, 2016.
Customs and Border Protection regional director Brian Humphrey stands near fishing boats as federal officials conduct inspections, Oct. 20, 2016.

HONOLULU - Federal officials said Thursday a new contract being used to address concerns about foreign fishing crews in Hawaii's longline commercial fleet is not within their jurisdiction to enforce, leaving the industry responsible for enforcing its own rules.

Federal and state officials met with vessel owners, captains and representatives from Hawaii's fleet 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 have been confined to vessels for years.

A federal loophole allows the foreign men to work, but it exempts them from most basic labor protections. Many foreign fishermen have to stay on the boats because they are not legally allowed to enter the United States.

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 crew contract that will be required on any boat wanting to sell fish in the state's seafood auction.

The group began distributing the contract to boat captains on Oct. 1. John Kaneko, program manager for the Hawaii Seafood Council, estimated less than 60 boat owners have returned the contract so far.

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.

Ing asked Jim Cook, board member of the Hawaii Longline Association, whether fishing boat captains could provide copies of contracts between fishermen and boat captains to the state. Cook said he believed that would be possible.

“It's very frustrating to just hear people just kind of punt or say maybe over time we can find a solution.” Ing said. “I think the universal contract is a good first step, but it's far from sufficient.”

A woman who worked as a federal observer on fishing boats that docked in Honolulu described for lawmakers what it was like to work on boats without toilets, showers or hot water.

“You have a cold water deck hose as a shower ... the water tastes like iron,” said Ashley Watts, a former observer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“There are a lot of ideas for reform,” said Khara Jabola, chapter coordinator for Af3irm Hawaii, an organization that focuses on human trafficking. “At a minimum, there needs to be a rejection of the industry's proposal for self-regulation.”

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.

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.