HONOLULU – A woman who worked as an observer on fishing boats that docked in Honolulu described for Hawaii lawmakers what it was like without toilets, showers or hot water.
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"You have a cold water deck hose as a shower...the water tastes like iron," said Ashley Watts, a former observer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Watts' comments to lawmakers at the state Capitol Wednesday followed an Associated Press investigation that found some fishermen have been confined to vessels for years.
A federal loophole allows the foreign men to work but exempts them from most basic labor protections. Many foreign fishermen have to stay on the boats because they are not legally allowed to enter the United States.
"It's hard to sleep, because every day we don't do something is another night that some folks are suffering," state Rep. Kaniela Ing said. "It's very frustrating to just hear people just kind of punt or say maybe over time we can find a solution."
Ing and other lawmakers pressed representatives from the fishing industry and government agencies about what can be done to increase oversight and improve conditions in the industry. Ing asked Jim Cook, board member of the Hawaii Longline Association, whether fishing boat captains could provide copies of contracts between fishermen and boat captains to the state, and Cook said he believed that would be possible.
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The Hawaii Longline Association, which represents fishing boat owners, created a universal crew contract that will be required on any boat wanting to sell fish in the state's seafood auction.
The group began distributing the contract to boat captains on Oct. 1, and John Kaneko, program manager for Hawaii Seafood Council, estimated less than 60 boat owners have returned the contract so far.
Some at the meeting were skeptical that the new industry contract would make a difference, in part because it relies on the industry policing itself, which they say hasn't worked.
"I think the universal contract is a good first step, but it's far from sufficient," Ing said. He asked Kaneko if the industry is open to making changes that could strengthen the contract.
"I appreciate your contribution, because we're trying to get something in place quickly," Kaneko said. "We accept all the criticisms and the contributions."
Alton Miyasaka, a manager in the state Division of Aquatic Resources, said staff used to go out and inspect the boats when there were fewer vessels, but "we don't have the necessary staff to go out to the boats regularly."
Before the meeting, a group of Hawaii residents and activists rallied outside the state Capitol to call for better conditions for fishermen, demanding an end to what they call unacceptable living and working conditions.
"There are a lot of ideas for reform," said Khara Jabola, chapter coordinator for af3irm Hawaii, an organization that focuses on human trafficking. "At a minimum, there needs to be a rejection of the industry's proposal for self-regulation."
Over six months, The Associated Press obtained confidential contracts, reviewed dozens of business records and interviewed boat owners, brokers and more than 50 fishermen in Hawaii, Indonesia and San Francisco.
The investigation found men living in squalor on some boats, forced to use buckets instead of toilets, suffering running sores from bed bugs and sometimes lacking sufficient food. It also revealed instances of human trafficking.
The report was part of the AP's ongoing global look at labor abuses in the fishing industry, stretching from Southeast Asia to America's own waters.
Last year, the AP reported on fishermen locked in a cage and others buried under fake names on the remote Indonesian island village of Benjina. Their catch was traced to the United States, leading to more than 2,000 slaves being freed.
Federal law requires that U.S. citizens make up 75 percent of the crew on most commercial fishing vessels in America. The fleet in Hawaii has an exemption carved out years ago, largely by lawmakers no longer in office.