Ranking Member Grijalva Leads Letter Demanding Federal Enforcement Against Human Trafficking in Hawaiian Fishing Industry

Washington, D.C. – Ranking Member Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and three other key Democratic lawmakers late yesterday sent a letter to the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) demanding overdue enforcement against widely reported incidents of human trafficking in U.S. waters by commercial fishing vessels. The letter, available at http://bit.ly/2gDweCw, points out that the well-known labor exemptions used by the Hawaii longline fleet were not designed to allow the illegal behavior the agencies have chosen to ignore.

At Grijalva’s instigation, Natural Resources Committee Democrats hosted a Dec. 6 forum on Capitol Hill to highlight the scope of the problem and the need for regulatory action. Video highlights of that forum are available at http://bit.ly/2hgXkiH.

Yesterday’s letter was also signed by House Transportation and Infrastructure Ranking Member Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.); Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), ranking member of the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power, and Oceans; and Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), ranking member on the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation. It requests information on USCG and NOAA legal interpretations of the relevant laws and calls on both agencies to “take immediate action to ensure that all vessels in the Hawaiian longline fleet are complying with all applicable laws, including those regarding manning requirements for U.S. flagged vessels.”

The lack of legal and regulatory action on trafficking in the industry has received intense public and media scrutiny since the publication of a 2015 New York Times series on the issue and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Seafood From Slaves” series published earlier this year by the Associated Press, which highlighted trafficking in Hawaiian waters. Enforcing existing rules for crew aboard vessels in the Hawaii longline fleet would dramatically reduce the threat of labor abuses by requiring vessels to employ mostly American crewmembers and requiring foreign workers to obtain H2-B visas designed for temporary, nonagricultural foreign workers.

“The human rights abuses we’ve discovered in the seafood industry, including on ships flying the American flag, are shameful and disturbing,” Grijalva said. ”The deeper we dig, the more we find that far from using some harmless loophole, these vessels are flat out breaking the law. Too much seafood on our plates today comes with a side order of violence and human misery. I’m working with my colleagues to press responsible federal agencies to take action under existing law, and if we need to close loopholes, pass new legislation or create additional enforcement authority, we’re going to start taking those options very seriously.”

“I am deeply disturbed—while the United States has been criticizing other nations for serious labor, environmental, and human rights abuses in high seas fisheries, U.S. flagged fishing vessels based out of Hawaii may be guilty of the same violations,” Rep. DeFazio said. “Turning a blind eye to illegal fishing practices and serious labor abuses on fishing vessels here at home undermines our nation’s credibility in prosecuting this behavior abroad. These vessels also exploit cheap labor from places like Indonesia, allowing crews that haven’t been properly vetted for national security concerns to gain access to U.S. ports. NOAA and the Coast Guard must aggressively enforce existing U.S. laws that prevent illegal fishing operations.  Moreover, they must fully investigate allegations of serious labor and workplace abuses reported on U.S. flagged fishing vessels, and if confirmed, take swift action to stop these violations.”

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