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AP Report Exposes Slave-Like Conditions On Hawaii Fishing Fleets


If you buy seafood that was caught in Hawaii, it's very likely you are eating fish that was caught by people who work on American boats but make as little as 70 cents an hour. That is according to a new report by the Associated Press.

It details the low pay and other abuses of hundreds of foreigners who work on these American boats. And all of this is legal. Martha Mendoza reported the story for the AP. And she's with us now on Skype. Welcome to the show.


MCEVERS: So tell us about these fishing boats. Who runs them? And who works on them?

MENDOZA: So these are American-flagged boats that are American-owned. And they have American captains. And they're fishing in a U.S. fishery managed by the federal government. There's a fleet of about 140 boats with about 700 crew members. Almost all are non-citizen, undocumented men from Southeast Asia in the Pacific. They don't have visas. And they are never allowed to come onshore.

MCEVERS: So they're working on American boats. And they're operating off of the U.S. state of Hawaii. Why aren't they protected by U.S. labor laws?

MENDOZA: Basically, federal law says that U.S. boats should be crewed by U.S. fishermen. And it has been carved out that non-citizens can be used only to catch, quote, unquote, "highly migratory species" and only outside the exclusive economic zone. And this ends up being Hawaiian vessels that are catching swordfish and tuna.

MCEVERS: Basically through this loophole that says if you do this very specific thing in this very specific place with this very specific type of fish, then you don't have to comply with law.

MENDOZA: That's right, Kelly. And the other piece of it is these men are not immigrants in that they're not moving here. They live in other countries. And so they're in this little bit of a visa purgatory.

MCEVERS: And what are the conditions like on the boat for these long stretches of time while they're working or even while they're on break?

MENDOZA: Some of these boats, in particular, are in bad shape. And some of the men, in particular, are in bad shape. They have running sores. They have bedbug outbreaks. And some people are very afraid of their captains.

MCEVERS: What kind of fish are they catching? And who ultimately is buying it?

MENDOZA: So this is tuna, swordfish, poke, ahi, mahi-mahi, the fish that sounds familiar to people who enjoy Hawaiian seafood. Between 60 to 80 percent of it stays in Hawaii and is actually consumed there. And Hawaiians eat more seafood than any other Americans. The rest is sent to the mainland, where it's served at fine restaurants or in supermarkets.

MCEVERS: Have fishing boat captains and Hawaiian officials reacted to your story?

MENDOZA: We have heard a lot of feedback, mostly from people who are lawmakers and policymakers who are saying, show us exactly what the loophole is. And we actually published a separate, small story on what the legalities are that allow this to happen. There's been kind of an outpouring in Hawaii of people saying, we kind of knew this was going on.

MCEVERS: Have any of them changed their ways since this report came out?

MENDOZA: No. So all these commercial fishing boats come into one pier in Honolulu called Pier 38. They unload their seafood at the very famous Honolulu seafood auction. And from there, we went in and talked to people who were buying the fish and said, you know, where are you going to send this fish?

And it was Whole Foods. It was Sam's Club. It was a Hyatt hotel. It was Costco and others. So we contacted each and every one of those companies and restaurants and said, here's what we found. Their responses have been, we need to look into this.

Our understanding is that this is a very legal situation. And our buyers in Hawaii are buying good seafood for us from boats that treat their people well. That was their understanding. And so we haven't heard from them since we published.

MCEVERS: That's Martha Mendoza. She's a reporter with the Associated Press. And she was with us on Skype. Thanks a lot.

MENDOZA: Thank you.

MCEVERS: In a statement, we heard from the fishing industry and the president of the Hawaii Longline Association, Sean Martin. He says the confinement of foreign fishermen on boats is the result of federal regulations opposed by the industry. He says most crewmembers are satisfied with their work and that, quote, "the AP tells only part of the story." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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