HONOLULU — Around 700 undocumented foreign workers, mostly from impoverished Southeast Asian and Pacific Island nations, work on Hawaii’s commercial fishing fleet, the country’s fifth-highest grossing fishery. They catch prized ahi tuna, mahimahi and other seafood at some of the country’s finest restaurants, markets and hotels. They do not have visas and cannot enter the country, staying confined to their boats for sometimes years at a time — all with the blessing of high-ranking federal lawmakers and officials. An Associated Press investigation found instances of human trafficking, active tuberculosis and low food supplies.
HOW DID THEY GET TO HAWAII?
The workers are mostly experienced fishermen from Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and the tiny Pacific island nation of Kiribati. They are not permitted to fly into Hawaii because they do not have visas. Instead, they are hopscotched thousands of miles by plane through several countries until reaching Pacific island nations, Panama or even Mexico. From there, they are put on boats for the long trip to Honolulu.
HOW MUCH ARE THEY PAID?
The fishermen earn anywhere from $350 a month up to around $1,500 a month, depending on their boat and the bonuses they may be given. Most take home $500 to $600 a month. They work shifts as long as 22 hours with few breaks, and are typically at sea three weeks each month. Some salaries break down to as little as 70 cents an hour; for many boat owners, bait and ice cost more than crew salaries. The fishermen catch about $110 million worth of seafood annually.
WHY CAN’T THEY LEAVE THEIR BOATS?
The men are not allowed to set foot on shore because they are undocumented, nonimmigrants without visas. They have not technically entered the country and have no paperwork granting them access even onto the docks. They are, by law, detained by their boat captains who hold onto their passports. In rare cases, boat owners can request passes from federal authorities to take the fishermen ashore for things such as medical care. Though the men are not technically allowed to leave their vessels, security guards turn a blind eye when they go onto the docks, but no farther, to see friends.
WHO OVERSEES THIS SYSTEM AND HOW IT IS LEGAL?
Officials from U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Coast Guard monitor the use of foreign labor in Hawaii’s commercial fishing fleet, made up of about 140 boats. The federal agencies have no authority to set wages, but they do intervene when fishermen say their salaries are late or complain about other problems. The U.S. Attorney’s office says the system is legal.
A loophole in federal regulations pushed by lawmakers including late Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye allows foreign men to work on the fleet. Fishermen were initially allowed to fly to Hawaii, but that ended after the Sept. 11 attacks.
WHAT KIND OF SEAFOOD DO THE FISHERMEN CATCH?
The men catch seafood including marlin, swordfish and ahi tuna used to make poke, a Hawaiian salad made with raw fish that’s a staple in the islands. One fish can bring as much as $1,000 at Hawaii’s fish auction, the only one of its kind still operating in the U.S. The bulk of the catch goes to restaurants, hotels and markets in Hawaii, but about 20 percent is shipped to the mainland where it’s served in some of the country’s finest restaurants. The fish can be found everywhere from Whole Foods and Costco to Sam’s Club and military bases along with hotels, including the Hyatt, and Roy’s restaurants. Supermarkets, restaurants and chefs selling the seafood condemned labor abuse.