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Where EAST meets the Northwest

In this photo provided by the U.S. Coast Guard, the Pacific Paradise, a commercial fishing vessel carrying foreign workers that ran aground and later burned and leaked fuel just off the beaches of Waikiki, Hawai‘i, is towed out to sea on December 7, 2017. It was sunk by a team of salvage workers. (U.S. Coast Guard via AP)

From The Asian Reporter, V27, #24 (December 18, 2017), pages 7 & 15.

Salvage team sinks fishing boat off Hawai‘i reef

By Caleb Jones

The Associated Press

HONOLULU — A commercial fishing vessel carrying foreign workers that ran aground and later burned and leaked fuel just off the beaches of Waikiki has been towed out to sea and sunk by a team of salvage workers.

After being patched up and filled with foam to regain buoyancy, the 79-foot Pacific Paradise was hooked to a tug boat and hauled into deeper water as a crowd of people on the beach cheered.

An attempt to tow the boat to sea earlier failed after it was removed from the reef, but then became stuck again in a shallow, sandy area about 600 feet away, forcing salvagers to wait until high tide.

The plan was to move it about 13 miles offshore to an EPA-approved disposal site, according to Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Sara Muir. Officials say there could still be up to 1,500 gallons of fuel remaining on the boat.

The crash raised new questions about the safety and working conditions of foreign laborers in the Hawai‘i fleet. No one aboard called for help when it crashed, and rescue teams responded to eyewitness reports. They rescued 19 foreign workers and an American captain, who were then taken by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents to a pier to be interviewed and placed on other boats.

"There’s a little bit of concern as to why there [were] so many crew members onboard," said Honolulu resident Jeff Olin, who was at the beach to watch the removal. "That’s definitely another part of the equation that needs some answers."

The vessel usually has a crew of six, and while it was unclear exactly how many bunks were on the Pacific Paradise, similar boats typically have no more than 10 beds for crew to sleep. It would have taken at least 12 days for the boat to make it from American Samoa, where it picked up the Southeast Asian crew members, to Hawai‘i.

The Pacific Paradise — based in Honolulu and used to catch tuna in the Pacific — smashed into the shallow reef just before midnight on October 10 in about six feet of water just a few hundred yards offshore. Days later it caught fire as a salvage team prepared it to be towed, causing extensive damage that slowed its removal and sent fishing hooks, fuel, and oil into the ocean.

A 2016 Associated Press investigation revealed the fishing fleet exploits a loophole in federal law to employ men from impoverished Southeast Asian and Pacific nations for a fraction of the pay an American worker would get, with some making as little as 70 cents per hour.

The men do not have authorization to enter the United States, so they are confined to boats while docked in Honolulu and not eligible for most basic labor protections. The AP report revealed instances of abuse and claims of human trafficking among the fleet.

Under the law, U.S. citizens must make up 75 percent of the crew on most American commercial fishing boats. But in Hawai‘i, the loophole carved out to support one of the state’s biggest industries exempts commercial fishing boat owners from the rules enforced almost everywhere else.

The recently introduced Sustainable Fishing Workforce Protection Act would close the loophole that has allowed the Hawai‘i fleet to employ the workers.

A banner reading "end slave-like labor in Hawai‘i longline fishery" had been placed on the beach near the wreck by an activist from the Turtle Island Restoration Network, which has filed a complaint with the Inter-American Human Rights Commission.

Dylan Bedortha, the group’s advocacy associate who set up the sign, formerly worked as a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration observer in Hawai‘i’s longline fishing fleet. He said the conditions he saw on the boats as a federal employee made him change his career path.

"It took me a couple of years to really let all that sink in and see what was actually going on on some of the worst boats that I was on," Bedortha said. "I decided to take a different direction and step into the conservation side of things."

The commission is an autonomous body of the Organization of American States and works to protect human rights. The U.S. is a member.

The complaint asks the commission to determine the responsibility of the U.S. government for human-rights abuses against foreign workers in Hawai‘i.

Most of the foreign workers aboard the Pacific Paradise were from Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Kiribati, and they were not part of the regular crew.

Officials said the boat was not on a fishing trip before it crashed.

The boat is owned by Honolulu-based TWOL LLC. The company’s lawyer, Bryan Ho, a longtime fishing industry attorney, has declined repeated requests for interviews.

The 20 men were at sea for at least 12 days before the vessel crashed, the minimum time it would take to get from American Samoa to Hawai‘i, according to fishing industry experts.

Once rescued, they met U.S. customs officials and were escorted to a pier in Honolulu to begin work on other boats.

Another fishing vessel with foreign crew members, the 57-foot Jane, took on water and capsized about 110 miles off Hawai‘i’s Big Island on November 27.

The crew sent a mayday call and got into a life raft before being rescued by another fishing vessel.

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