State lawmakers delved into ways to improve work and pay conditions for the mostly foreign workers on longline fishing boats.

Allegations of unfair practices were first uncovered by Always Investigating and recently came under added scrutiny.

Giving state fish licensing more reach into the operations, reviews of crew contracts, sharing crew data better between regulatory agencies, even unionizing the laborers were among ideas discussed at the Capitol hearing Wednesday.

Several years ago, crew and labor advocates came forward to Always Investigating to tell of harsh conditions for foreign crew on some longline vessels, rock-bottom pay, mistreatment by some captains, and at its worst allegations of human trafficking. The prevalence of foreign labor is facilitated by a federal exemption just for longline fisheries that puts much of the industry outside the realm of state regulation.

“We’ve seen a longstanding culture of just letting these labor situations slip through the cracks,” said Marti Townsend, director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii. “Every agency at the state level and the federal level are like, ‘It’s not our kuleana to take care of these workers.’”

Always Investigating heard directly how pay — already far below American standards — didn’t come in the promised intervals, and ultimately did not match up with crew contracts by a voyage’s end. Then came deductions and fees some say were akin to indentured servitude. From bucket toilets to bedbugs to no showers, long voyages hundreds of miles out to sea expose workers to those conditions for weeks on end, for years-long contracts.

Federal fisheries observers from NOAA get a first-hand view of both the good and the bad.

“I’m just here to share some of the injustices and sanitation issues, the conditions of the vessels I saw,” said former fishery observer Ashley Watts. “I witnessed first-hand and heard observers recount the inferior working conditions and the unjust treatment of the crew on some vessels. I want to see the fishermen have the same rights as people who live in our community.”

Add in a lack of ready access to passports and restricted mobility mandated by federal immigration laws to detain crew at or right by their vessels, and some say it crosses a line into involuntary confinement. Recent national coverage of the same allegations spurred another round of efforts by lawmakers and authorities to see what if anything can be done to improve conditions.

A rally and hearing at the Capitol was held Wednesday.

“We’re here to support our state legislators in taking state action to assure that labor abuses and human trafficking will not continue fleet-wide on a long-term basis,” said Khara Jabola-Carolus, chapter coordinator for AF3IRM Hawaii. “I think what that looks like at the very minimum is a rejection of the industry’s proposal to self-regulate.”

Lawmakers pressed the Department of Land and Natural Resources — which licenses all commercial fishing personnel — whether what they collect on the license form could include a review of the crewmember’s labor contract.

“Could you add the requirement to see the agency contract to the application process for licensure?” asked Rep. Kaniela Ing, chair of the House Ocean, Marine Resources and Hawaiian Affairs committee.

“We would entertain that prospect if that were something the Legislature looked at,” said Bruce Anderson, administrator of DLNR’s Division of Aquatic Resources. “Again, we couldn’t follow up to do anything about it if they didn’t; we wouldn’t have that authority to require a contract with anyone else.”

A representative of the Hawaii Longline Association, representing fishing permit holders, said it is halfway through an assessment of all crew to see what more can be done from management’s side. It’s already deployed a contract in multiple languages aiming to assure conditions aren’t akin to trafficking, and to alert crew of ways to reach out for help.

The fish auction says it won’t sell fish from boats that aren’t using the universal contract.

“There’s no standard like, ‘If you want to be a part of Hawaii Longline Association, you cannot be human trafficking’?” Ing asked.

“There is no standard,” said Jim Cook of the HLA.

“Is that something you would be open to in the future?” Ing asked.

“We’re working toward that,” Cook said. “Once we get ourselves wrapped around what the actual situation is on the dock through this fast survey, I think it will probably lead us down to the road to some set of standards.”

“In other states, there are unionized crews of fishermen. Do you represent the workers too or are they on their own?” Ing asked.

“As I said, we represent the interests of the holders of Hawaii longline permits,” Cook said.

“So not the crew members per se?” Ing said.

“That’s correct,” Cook said.

“So who represents them?” Ing asked.

“You know, I think they represent themselves,” Cook said.

Several state agencies, including the DLNR, have said the ultimate decision rests with federal lawmakers and authorities on whether the longline industry still should have its federal exemption from laws applicable to all other U.S. fisheries like Alaska, which requires 75 percent or more American crew.

In the decades since Hawaii got its exemption, the industry has blossomed from 40 boats to more than 140, landing $100 million worth of fish a year. It pays its primarily Filipino, Indonesian, Kiribati and Vietnamese crews about a half to a quarter of what an American laborer would cost. Fishery crews have zero legal standing in America, not even a work visa — something one state agency said could be a good first step to change.

“The reason we have migrant workers working in the U.S. is because they can’t find U.S. citizens to do the jobs. That’s the reason for the temporary work visas,” Anderson said, drawing comparisons with the U.S. farming industry, which uses foreign labor but through a visa-based process. “It’s the same situation with the fishing industry, so maybe that’s an avenue to pursue that would get to the issue much more directly.”

“The temporary work visa, which is a way migrant farm workers are handled, that assures they have health insurance. It assures they are given a reasonable place to live and they can negotiate the pay, but at least those basic conditions are met,” Anderson added.

Lawmakers asked DLNR whether it does or can share crew data, since the Division of Aquatic Resources is the only central repository with all of their details due to commercial fishing licensing. Always Investigating had already obtained from the state and posted online several weeks ago a full list of all longline crewmember names, citizenship, what boat they work on and more.

DLNR told lawmakers it could readily share the same with them or other agencies if requested.