Seafood Choices

Seafood News Editor: If it is Unethical in Thailand, It is Unethical in Hawaii Also

One species targeted by Hawaiian fishing vessels is yellowfin tuna. A single fish can be sold for more than $1,000. Image via NOAA.

This post is an editorial by Seafoodnews.com editor John Sackton. Seafoodnews is a subscription site, and the editorial has been cross-posted here with permission.

The editorial is in response to the AP report: ‘Hawaiian seafood caught by foreign crews confined on boats.’

Charlie Nagle said it best:  We “do not and will never knowingly source from vessels that mistreat their crew.” The Nagle family has been in the fish business on the Boston Fish Pier for 130 years.

The AP report on the imprisonment of foreign fishermen on Hawaiian vessels is a wake-up call.  No seafood buyer will tolerate abusive conditions for fishermen, whether the result of a legal loophole or not.

The US has been highly critical of Thailand, where abusive labor practices and human trafficking in the seafood industry earned worldwide condemnation and resulted in changes in laws and in close audits of the supply chain.

In New Zealand, documentation of abusive labor practices on offshore vessels led to changes in the law and requirements that crews on these boats be free from unfair labor contracts, be paid according to New Zealand laws, and through New Zealand bank accounts out of reach of the labor brokers who hired them.

Can we expect anything less in Hawaii?

The fishermen in question are hired overseas, brought to Hawaii by boat never having set foot in the US, and then kept onboard for months without any possibility of coming ashore while their vessels dock in Hawaii and California.  They are paid as little as $0.70 per hour.

The AP report says that “under the law, U.S. citizens must make up 75 percent of the crew on most American commercial fishing boats. But influential lawmakers, including the late Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye, pushed for a loophole to support one of the state’s biggest industries. It exempted Hawaiian commercial fishing boat owners from federal rules enforced almost everywhere else.

Thus the workers in Hawaii, who catch $110 million worth of seafood annually, are paid as little as 70 cents an hour. They are detained on boats by captains who are required by law to hold their passports. That potentially goes against federal human trafficking laws saying bosses who hold workers’ identification documents can face up to five years in prison.”

The Hawaiian tuna and mahi fleet has no excuse.  They can either find fishermen and pay them a US wage, or stop selling to most US markets.

It is simply not acceptable for buyers to express huge concern about fishery labor abuses in Thailand, and ignore those that legally take place in Hawaii.

The fact that these workers can’t come ashore due to lack of visas doesn’t excuse the practice of holding these men on vessels who have no opportunity to leave, nor any opportunity to change their work situation or demand higher pay.  All the condemnation of labor agents and traffickers that supply labor to Thai fishing boats applies to these vessels in Hawaii also.

Undoubtedly the AP story will lead to a change in laws.  But the seafood industry, including the Hawaii longline fleet, cannot wait until then.  They must reform this practice immediately, or shut down.  There is no middle ground.


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