A Hawaii bill that sought to change the way commercial fishing licenses are granted died after industry representatives told lawmakers it would wreck the business.
The bill sought more oversight of the fishing industry, but that’s the role of the federal government, not the state, said state Sen. Brian Tanighuchi, chairman of the Senate Committee on International Affairs and the Arts.
Two committees including Taniguchi’s deferred the bill indefinitely Wednesday, killing it for the legislative session.
The bill sought to restrict commercial fishing licenses to people who are legally allowed to enter the U.S., a redundant move because that already is codified. But despite what’s currently in the law, the state issues fishing licenses to the men.
The bill also would have required fishing license applicants to appear in person, creating a logistical barrier because most of Hawaii’s foreign fishermen are confined to their boats. Supporters said that interaction would give foreign fishermen a chance to tell state officials if they were victims of human trafficking or having problems such as withheld wages.
“It’s hard to set up a whole government procedure to just maybe bump into that problem when you have a federal agency that’s actually supposed to enforce that,” Taniguchi said after the hearing.
The bill was introduced after an Associated Press investigation found some foreign fishermen working without most basic labor protections while catching premium seafood. The 2016 investigation also found that foreign fishermen were confined to the boats while docked in Honolulu.
The fishermen have to stay on or near their boats because they lack the proper visas or documents to legally enter the U.S.
Currently, fishing boat operators apply for licenses on behalf of the crew that can’t leave the docks.
The Pacific Gateway Center, an anti-human trafficking group, said it has had direct contact with dozens of fishermen from the boats and heard allegations of human trafficking, beatings and a lack of food, water, toilet facilities and payment of full salaries.
“The people who are victims will have no voice and no way of getting help,” said Tin Myaing Thein, the group’s director, after learning the bill died. “These people will just go on the way they have been, and will continue to be exploited as before.”
State Sen. Karl Rhoads, who introduced the bill, said there wasn’t enough political support to pass the legislation.
“Because the jurisdiction is so split up between the different agencies and different levels of government, it’s hard for the state to say we really have any serious jurisdiction over it, so people are saying you’re trying to be the U.S. Department of Labor,” Rhoads said about his proposal.
At a previous hearing, fishing industry officials said they would lose foreign workers and that hiring Americans for higher wages would drive up seafood costs if the bill passed.
“We fight all the time pricewise with imports,” said Jim Cook of the Hawaii Longline Association.
Cook and others said the state’s commercial fishing industry could shut down if the bill passed.
“I think they’re probably right,” Rhoads said Tuesday. “They wouldn’t be able to get visas (for the foreign workers) and they won’t be able to get enough Americans to do it at a wage they’re willing to pay.”
A House bill to require the state to collect contracts between fishermen and their overseas employers is still alive, but faces an upcoming legislative deadline.
Associated Press writer Martha Mendoza contributed to this report.