DLNR on petition to change fishing rules: ‘We’re not involved with labor issues’

Always Investigating

The state agency in charge of commercial fishing licenses has rejected a petition to change its rules, a request that sought to ensure foreign fishermen understand what they’re signing.

The petition was filed by advocates seeking changes in an industry that relies on low-paid undocumented foreign workers.

Always Investigating exposed questionable practices aboard some longline fishing vessels, including poor working conditions and pay less than workers were contracted to receive, something critics say is akin to modern-day slavery.

“This is a characteristic of human trafficking that suddenly you discover it’s going on in an industry that has a pervasive problem,” said petitioner Larry Geller.

The Board of Land and Natural Resources voted unanimously Friday to turn down the petition, after the Department of Land and Natural Resources said the main point of contention is not under its power to fix.

“We’re issuing those licenses to determine who is catching what and where, and that is to effectively manage our fishery,” explained Bruce Anderson, administrator, DLNR’s Division of Aquatic Resources. “We’re not involved with labor issues, including pay and working conditions.”

“It’s not a labor issue for DLNR. It’s a licensing issue, because their licensing of these conditions is making them possible,” Geller argued. “They’re enabling what people are objecting to.”

Hawaii law says only people lawfully admitted to the United States can take marine life for commercial purposes, though DLNR recognizes federal non-admittance fishery.

“They haven’t been following all their rules anyway,” Geller said. “It’s something that’s morphed year to year. We don’t know when it started, when these conditions started, but now is the time to stop it.”

The licenses are given to individuals who don’t have traditional work visas and aren’t legally allowed to step foot on American soil. They’re restricted to the boat and its immediate surroundings.

Only the highly migratory fishing fleet — which includes Hawaii longliners — has a federal exemption from fishery rules otherwise requiring 75-percent American crew.

“I think that requires a federal fix. That’s not something we can do locally,” Anderson said. “I would urge that be pursued as a possible remedy to the problem. There may be other remedies as well, handling them the same way as migrant farm workers with temporary visas or something along those lines may go a long way to assuring they have at least adequate health care coverage and a reasonably good place to live.”

The petition by the anti-trafficking advocates also wants the rules changed to make the fishing license database more easily accessible and publicly searchable.

Always Investigating recently obtained and posted all current longline license holders, but the public would have to request a new list every time to see the most current information.

DLNR tells us it will look into whether it can make that information accessible by public database.

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