When cops become robbers, and robbers become cops.

Earlier I was asked by a client to consider changing the title of a white paper on illegal fishing.  The title of a manuscript for the Ocean Policy Research Institute in Japan had been Policy to Combat IUU Fishing.  ” I see a current trend for IUU strategy is moving towards “criminalizing fishers”, the client said, “and worry that your report that is very neutral would make an impression that it also has the tone. ”  It was a subtle but very good point.  Why was I using that word anyhow?  I went back and looked at the word “combat”.  It’s everywhere in the IUU fishing literature, from the title of the US Presidential Task Force to strategic documents on trade measures.   It’s also used in the banner of the Partnership for Freedom challenge we won earlier this year, to rethink supply chains to combat modern slavery in the making of goods and services.

What I’ve seen in Hawaii firsthand, since the Fall when the Associated Press alleged forced labor was occurring in the local longline fleet, was when the grey issues of fishing are framed in a cops and robbers format, bias is unleashed (all around).  It’s like permission to start making large allegations (here, without cases or evidence, testimony that bears out, or a current complaint to either the pier authorities, fleet association, or the many community groups supporting the fleet).  It leads to a wild goose chase for a villain.   It makes people think there is a villain, right off the bat, and that it must be industry.

But, is it?  Here in Hawaii the fishing crew, a professional corps nearly 700 strong from 6 countries,  who have said they want to be here and are paid as agreed, may have been used for a story and, possibly, some political advantage-taking.  The crew are terrified according to the community groups who support them, the crew are terrified of losing their jobs.  Ellen Stites, an Indonesian, returned to her country recently and visited the villages of crew working in the Hawaii fleet.  She said their families are extremely worried about the prospect of the men being sent home as fall out from AP’s story.  The Indonesian man named in it said he was used and misrepresented; and he wants to come back and fish.

The proposition on the table this week at the Hawaii State Capitol was to eliminate the jobs for the nearly 700 fishers altogether, by taking away the commercial licensing right from foreign crew.  How did we get here?  How did a good goal, of raising awareness of slavery in fishing, became a bad goal?

It does have something to do with the language around criminalizing fishers.  It’s almost inevitable to punish the target when a villain has been created for a story.

Meanwhile, a large network has been working hard behind the scenes since AP’s allegation to make things right for crew.   It includes the federal government agencies, law makers, anti-trafficking professionals, and community groups.  Everyone was brought together by the fleet and fish auction.  It’s not a one-off.   All hands and all eyes are needed from here on.  A new structure is taking shape.

Who is leading the work?  It’s the fleet association, the group portrayed as the robbers.

Every best practice step known in this area is being taken by the fleet.  There was a lot of pressure right away to check the box for different interests.  Instead of reacting and jumping, instead of refuting, the fleet focused on hearing straight from the crew.   The association hired an independent fisheries sociologist, Amy Gough, who is known to the fleet, to dig in and bring to light all aspects of work in the fleet known and unknown.   With interpreters for every crew language, Amy spent a month at the piers, day and night, interviewing hundreds of crew members without captains or owners present, basically all vessels in port in a month’s period.

Amy gathered the hundreds of details about work conditions which the US Department of Labor advised the fleet to gather to define and clarify working conditions.  I was hired by the Hawaii Seafood Council to write a code of practice for the fleet and we did it using the interview results together with guidance from the labor folks in Washington.  New and more formal roles for oversight are developing for community groups, the State of Hawaii and the Customs and Border Protection agency of Homeland Security, to offer support to the crew in many ways.

Getting a bit more forensic, how is it that the only proposal on the legislative table is to eliminate the foreign crew?    A handful of people continue to poke at the crew.   The most vocal person, other than the two AP reporters behind the series (who do not live here) has not been spotted helping crew at the piers but has been spotted on television carrying a sign calling a local boat owner a slaver.  There is no allegation about the crew members on his boat.  Actually the person named on the sign is the person organizing the changes needed and consistently speaking up for crew well-being.

The fleet is called the bad guy.  The fleet has shared every detail about working conditions (interview results, contracts, code of practice).  AP, the ‘cops’ here, have shared nothing and written only what serves a villain story line.  In their new story, where they could have taken their victory lap to say look we see teamwork and progress and big, good changes, instead they said crew are fishing illegally.  There it is: criminalizing the fishers.

In fact, the crew in the fleet fish with commercial licenses (a good thing), with permission to work in U.S. waters backed up by legal paperwork (a good thing), with legal rights and access to local services, including medical and migrant justice services (a good thing) and oversight from a growing number of parties (a good thing).   The story was about the State of Hawaii fishing license, where the fishery and its crew are regulated by federal officials, mostly at Customs and Border Protection, Homeland Security.  You can read all about it in their manual.

AP’s story was written as though nobody had called the federal agencies to learn what they do and why.

Federal officials say they did talk to AP and explain everything.

Why would AP discard the knowledge to make it look like a State fishery?   It’s a federal fishery prosecuted outside of State waters.  Why would they say the men are illegal, undocumented, and without legal recourse, when the crew members have permission to work, are documented, fishing legally (with paperwork) and several ways forms of legal recourse, from legal aid and a T visa to assistance from CBP to change boats and employers when they want to.

Whatever the motive, the omissions are interesting.  Leaving out 99% of the story yields a perfect cops and robbers storyline.  If you go back and read the stories, try count the number of words which disparage everyone associated with fishing.

So yeah, criminalizing fishers sets a tone in a narrative that leads to change.  Cataclysmic change, if the crew members here lose their right to fish as a result.  Is that a good cops outcome, or a bad cops outcome?

It’s been painful.  Still, I can’t begrudge AP for trying to raise awareness.  Like I said I stumble in the same pursuit, for example using combative language without realizing the effect (thanks to my client for pointing out that “Policy to Combat IUU Fishing” is aggressive).    I am someone who has put myself in the middle between the industry and these grey areas too.  Not an easy space.  As if it were not uncomfortable enough, now I have also felt the leveling blow of an accusation.   The same people who rose to the challenge were vilified over little more than their identity in fishing.

Sure IUU fishing and slavery are issues in fishing/everywhere, but criminalizing fishers and industry is a worrisome trend.

My goal is making the human face of fishing visible.  To me it’s a beautiful dimension of the story behind our seafood.   There is always some tragedy when you look at the human dimension, of anything.  I want to blame AP for causing so much harm here, but that’s a fool’s game.  It’s a dangerous space.  Plus, looking around, there is so much opportunity around for win-win.

I look forward to working with organizations who see the dignity in this challenge.