One of the most famous lines from the Broadway musical Hamilton is “Immigrants: We get the job done.” As it turns out, so do contracted non-citizen fishermen in Hawaii’s longline fishery. It’s just not quite as catchy.
Khanh Huynh, a 28-year-old fisherman from just outside of Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City, is being credited with saving the lives of the two Americans on the 61-foot longliner Princess Hawaii, which sank 400 miles off the coast of Hawaii’s Big Island on March 25. The five other foreign contract workers from Vietnam and Kiribati were already in the water when Huynh called for an evacuation.
According to Steve Dysart, the federal observer on the boat, Huynh was effectively acting as captain, even though he has no legal authority to run a U.S. fishing boat as a non-citizen. The Associated Press reports that the captain, Robert Nicholson, had never worked on a Pacific longline boat.
"I never once saw the American captain make any attempt to operate the vessel, to issue any commands, directions or anything to make the vessel more seaworthy, more stable," Dysart told the AP. "I only saw him in his bunk."
Huynh recalled being in the wheelhouse when waves rolled over the deck and began to sink the boat. Owner Loc Nguyen reported the boat had recently been altered. Dysart noted it had been listing as it left the harbor.
“The boat had been so extensively modified, I did not recognize it,” Dysart said.
We’ve been following the story of fishing industry workers’ rights since the AP broke its investigative story on slave labor in Thailand’s fisheries in 2015.
Then in September 2016, two Indonesian fishermen claimed to have escaped a Hawaii-based boat and sued the owner for confinement in dangerous working conditions.
That set the stage for an investigation into the rights of foreign fishermen who supply labor for the Western Pacific fleet but don’t have rights to step off the boats. Federal fisheries legislation stipulates that U.S. citizens must make up 75 percent of crews on U.S. fishing boats. Hawaii’s loophole — largely related to its geography — allows owners to staff boats with foreign workers, provided they do not step onto U.S. soil while serving their contract.