Hawaii bill targeting commercial fishing industry in danger

HONOLULU (AP) — The sponsor of a Hawaii bill seeking to change the way commercial licenses are granted to foreign fishermen said the bill is in danger of dying.

State Sen. Karl Rhoads said fishing industry representatives have told lawmakers the bill could wreck the industry.

The bill would restrict commercial fishing licenses to people who are legally allowed to enter the U.S. It also would require fishing license applicants to appear in person before state officials.

"That's a big step and there's definitely not the political support to do that even if I really wanted to," Rhoads said.

The bill will likely be amended to remove the part requiring that licensees have permission to legally enter the U.S., Rhoads said, while the section requiring applicants to appear in person for fishing licenses might survive.

Currently, fishing boat operators apply for licenses on behalf of the crew that can't leave the docks.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is planning to consider the bill Wednesday.

The bill was introduced after an Associated Press investigation found some foreign fishermen working without most basic labor protections while catching premium seafood. The 2016 investigation also found that foreign fishermen were confined to the boats while docked in Honolulu.

The fishermen have to stay on or near their boats because they lack the proper visas or documents to legally enter the U.S.

"Because the jurisdiction is so split up between the different agencies and different levels of government, it's hard for the state to say we really have any serious jurisdiction over it, so people are saying you're trying to be the U.S. Department of Labor," Rhoads said about his proposal.

At a previous hearing, fishing industry officials said they would lose foreign workers and that hiring Americans for higher wages would drive up seafood costs if the bill passed.

"We fight all the time pricewise with imports," said Jim Cook of the Hawaii Longline Association.

Cook and others said the state's commercial fishing industry could shut down if the bill passed.

"I think they're probably right," Rhoads said Tuesday. "They wouldn't be able to get visas (for the foreign workers) and they won't be able to get enough Americans to do it at a wage they're willing to pay."

Supporters say the bill would provide more interaction between fishermen and officials and lead to more responsible fishing.

The Pacific Gateway Center, an anti-human trafficking group, said it has had direct contact with fishermen from the boats and heard allegations of beatings and a lack of food, water, toilet facilities and payment of full salaries.