Whole Foods drops Hawaii fish auction until it proves fair boat labor

Whole Foods has suspended buying fish from the Hawaii fish auction amid concerns over the labor practices of some fishing vessels.

It’s an issue Always Investigating first reported on back in 2013 and is now getting national attention.

Fishermen describe horrid working conditions, rock bottom pay, and even allegations of international crew captivity aboard some of the boats that dock at Honolulu Harbor.

Industry watchers say the Whole Foods move could be just the first of many, and the fish auction is already working on a system to weed out vessels with unfair labor practices.

Telling Always Investigating they have “zero tolerance for human rights abuses,” Whole Foods said Tuesday: “We have suspended purchases of the small amount of fish we source from the Hawaiian seafood auction until we can ensure the working conditions on these boats align with our core values.”

Whole Foods may call it “small,” but it’s a big deal down on the docks.

“We’d hate to lose such a prominent customer as Whole Foods,” said United Fishing Agency’s auction manager Michael Goto. “To rekindle that relationship, to get them back on board saying we respect the Hawaii fleet enough that we can bring their product back into our stores and sell it to our customers with confidence, that’s our goal.”

Sources say other major retailers are weighing the same move.

“We hope that Whole Foods’ action to directly address the labor abuses will start a domino effect,” said Kathryn Xian of the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery.

But the fish auction is responding quickly, meeting with representatives of longliners, the Hawaii Seafood Council, vessel owners and other stakeholders to come up with a tracking system — and fast.

“Once a standard has been set of the paper trail, documentation, making sure no forced labor is occurring, United Fishing Agency will only accept fish and will only sell fish on behalf of vessels that have proven through this process that they don’t have these accusatory practices going on,” Goto said.

“Like an independent accreditation so to speak?” KHON2 asked.

“Yes, and we’re having to do this on our own, because it hasn’t been done before,” Goto said. “As a part of this process, both internally and hopefully through a third party vetting this information, the auction itself will be the enforcer on this.”

It’s a move major local seafood restaurants welcome, as all Hawaii restaurants that serve local fish ultimately buy from suppliers connected to the fish auction.

“There are good people and bad people,” said Nico Chaize, chef and owner of Nico’s Pier 38. “We need to catch those people not following the rules they’re supposed to do. We’re going to look for it. Because of my proximity to the fish auction, I’m pretty much connected to that. I want to make sure the fish auction is not accepting any of those boats any more to unload the fish on the block.”

Meanwhile, Whole Foods says it’s “committed to the communities we serve in Hawaii and will continue to source directly from local, day-boat fishermen with proven fair labor practices.”

“We feel that this is the type of community effort that is required to move the needle very significantly, and quickly,” Xian said, “a lot more quickly than federal laws can be enacted.

“I think that the auction is also taking a step in the right direction,” she added. “We want to be sure that they follow through with this and we will make sure that they do. Despite the positive steps forward by auction officials and Whole Foods, the laws enabling the exploitation of migrant workers must inevitably be changed to uphold the highest fair labor practices.”

“It’s the right move,” Chaize said of the auction’s tracking proposal. “On the other hand, don’t forget this is a federal issue. The government needs to do its job. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol needs to do the job and catch those guys and make the thing so everybody feels right about it.”

The fish auction validation process could be ready within months.

KHON2 asked United Fishing Agency “when will everyone from a consumer to a vendor to a wholesaler be able to pull a file and see?”

Goto responded by saying “It’s going to take a little time, but we’re working as quickly as possible. I want to say within the (calendar) year we’re going to have enough information out there that customers can be comfortable again with the notion that purchasing Hawaii-landed seafood is something they can be comfortable and proud to do.”

Lawmakers are also looking at other ways to handle foreign labor issues.

“The solution lies between a collaborative effort of consumers, attorneys and lawmakers,” Xian said. “Once the collaboration gets going, we can make sure our community practices fair labor.”

Goto points out the industry as a whole, including Hawaii’s 140-vessel longliner fleet, is the most regulated and sustainable fishery in the world.

“This is an industry to be proud of,” he said. “We are doing things the right way. It’s not just about crew, it’s about sustainable fishing, it’s about protected species mitigation. The more the public knows about it, the better.”

Goto says most of the boats treat labor fairly and want to make sure all are proven to meet the highest standards.

“There’s a paper trail currently that shows and proves that slave labor on a whole is not taking place,” he said. “We want to get all that documentation down to assure these vendors like Whole Foods that there is a practical model here that we are not having slave labor or forced labor, that this is an actual business that is being run and that the crew members, despite being international, are not working for ‘no wages.’ Most of them are very happy here. Most get a percentage of revenue from the catch itself.”

Labor advocates say the vessels with violations, however, are still very serious.

“We also want to make certain the public is aware of how many abuses and the gravity of abuses that are happening to these workers,” Xian said. “They don’t know that when they get here, they won’t be able to leave. How can a contract be legally binding when they can’t even read the language?”

Goto says the Whole Foods move is a big concern and points to the desire of consumers and retailers to know more about the supply chain.

“There’s been no connectivity between the foods that we eat — the fishermen, all the way to the consumer that eats it, purchases it from a retail store or a restaurant, from a supermarket,” he said. “There’s still that grey area right now. I think through that process, people are going to start more and more understanding where that connection is and how it relates to them.”

Goto says the local fish market is especially important in the wake of the hepatitis A outbreak linked to tainted scallops imported from the Philippines.

“That hepatitis A scare was a widespread panic,” he said, “and when it was determined it came from international seafood, it did relay that story of how standards in foreign fisheries and even the absence of an agency like the FDA can come back and hurt Americans just bringing in that product, so we do want to maintain a domestic market as much as possible.”

“Less fresh seafood coming in from our boats, where we know where it’s caught, means more imports will come to Hawaii we don’t want that,” Chaize said. “The expanded (Papahanaumokuakea Marine National) monument will cut down 10 percent of fresh fish, which will be replaced by foreign fish. We have to work together to make sure the fresh fish is coming in.”

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