Hawaii’s lawmakers are understandably desperate to implement changes to the way they oversee foreign workers in their fishing fleets. Addressing the problem at home is better than the alternative of closing the federal loophole that allows this far-flung state with as many connections to Southeast Asian nations as to the continental United States to employ a higher percentage of foreign fishing crew.
But the bill that has passed committee in the Hawaii Legislature seems extremely short-sighted. And like too many of the regulatory changes that get handed down to the industry from the top, its proposals may sound nice, but they don’t make any sense in the context of the way things are actually managed. Nor do they propose new ways of managing those incongruities or enforcing any of the new policies.
Hawaii’s new bill would require all boat owners who wish to apply for a license in the state to first file employment contracts with each of their crew, so the state can verify that they are following the terms of their contracts.
While this bill does not address complications specific to fleets that work with foreign crew — and the bill’s target is migrant workers, specifically — it’s not even a practical approach to domestic crew.
Anyone who manages a fishing boat can tell you that crew can be transient. A few fisheries and boats rely on returning crew year over year, but even family members can be inconsistent. So will boat owners have to apply for new fishing licenses when they get new crew? If not, who is enforcing the filing of a new contract if it is no longer tied to a permit application but rather an existing permit?
Moreover, the administrator for the office that issues licenses in the state told the Honolulu Star Advertiser that he and his staff are not trained to determine the legitimacy of any contract. So who in the licensing office is expected to take on this task? How will they verify the information? Will they do so before each trip for each boat? What are the consequences for not filing a new contract for a new crew member before his or her first trip?
The fleet jumped on the problem immediately several months ago by creating a universal contract to be signed by crew members and boat owners. Reportedly, every active boat has since filed those contracts.
Maybe this bill is intended to add some teeth to that effort, but it appears only to have added a set of flapping gums.