A group representing Hawaii commercial fishermen has filed a court motion to defend the state's practice of giving fishing licenses to foreign workers.
The Hawaii Longline Association sought court permission last week to argue its side after a Maui resident asked a judge to declare that only those lawfully admitted to the United States should receive commercial fishing licenses.
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Resident Malama Chun went to court after an Associated Press investigation found hundreds of foreign workers in the Hawaii fleet were confined to boats and some were living in subpar conditions.
Hawaii grants fishing licenses to men from impoverished Southeast Asian and Pacific nations who are not allowed to enter the country. The foreign fishermen are paid a fraction of what an American worker would get, with some making as little as 70 cents an hour.
The Hawaii Longline Association said in court filings that a number of its members employ foreign fishermen, but it didn't provide a figure. About 80 percent of the crews managed by those members are not U.S. citizens, the group said, with many of the fishermen working on a seasonal basis and returning each year.
Under federal law, U.S. citizens must make up 75 percent of the crew on most American commercial fishing boats. But in Hawaii, a loophole carved out to support one of the state's biggest industries exempts commercial fishing boat owners from federal rules enforced almost everywhere else.
The Hawaii attorney general's office said it supported the association's motion to intervene in the case. Arguments have been scheduled for Dec. 13.
Chun appealed his case to the Second Circuit Court in Wailuku after the state Board of Land and Natural Resources, which regulates fishing licenses, denied his petition to change its policy.
Chun, who fishes as a cultural practice, said his family has seen a massive decline in fish stocks over generations. He blamed overfishing and said giving licenses to people who are not in the U.S. legally contributes to the problem.
The state land board said Chun didn't show how putting an end to licenses for foreign crews would address his concerns about overfishing and cultural practices.
The men hired from abroad for the Hawaii fleet aren't allowed to arrive at Honolulu's airport because they lack visas. They're instead flown to other countries and put on U.S.-owned fishing boats for long sails back to Hawaii.
Before the men start working, they need a state commercial fishing license. In order to get it, Hawaii requires that they must be "lawfully admitted" to the U.S.
When they arrive, they are met at the dock by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents who ban them from entering the country by stamping "refused" on their landing permits, which voids them. So instead of being "lawfully admitted," they are now barred by law from setting foot on U.S. soil.
The state Department of Land and Natural Resources accepts the landing permits as proof the fishermen are "lawfully admitted."
U.S. Customs, however, says the stamp means the fishermen can't even enter the U.S. temporarily. In rare cases, including medical emergencies, Customs can parole the men to go ashore.
Two bills that would have boosted oversight of the state's commercial fishing industry died in the Legislature earlier this year.
One bill would have restricted fishing licenses to people legally allowed to enter the country and made potential licensees apply in person. The other would have required boat operators to provide contracts between foreign fishermen and employers.