If you hadn’t heard, Hawaii was in some hot water last month. Allegations of allowing forced labor and poor working conditions for foreign crew members on longline fishing boats were all over the internet and consumers were in an uproar.
But is shutting them out and writing them off for what they did sustainable?
Show of hands, whose tired of hearing the word sustainable being thrown around like dirty socks when it comes to fish? There is probably nobody else I know who is sicker of it than my long time friend and trusted fishmonger, Mike Weinberg-Lynn, owner of Osprey Seafood.
Sustainability has become a buzzword among foodies, in markets like Whole Foods and in the news for a long time now. It’s what the “responsible” people are talking about.
But what happens when one of the biggest fisheries in the world, known for using the most sustainable fishing practices around, gets busted for allegations of human slavery?
There was nobody I trusted more to get the facts from than Mike.
But before we get down and dirty on what went down in Hawaii I would like to tell you a love story.
Neurologist turns fishmonger
Once upon a time in the Haight-Ashbury there was an intelligent man with a degree in neurology who married the love of his life.
As with many newlyweds the young couple had a baby on the way and was struggling to make ends meet. Work at the time in Mike’s field was scarce. Wedding gifts were reluctantly sold in order to pay rent.
Enter Peter Bird. Picture a man with long bushy red hair and an even bushier red beard knocking on your door on Haight street asking if he can crawl through your window. Mike’s first reaction was um, no and as he went to close the door in the man’s face Peter called out “wait I’m your neighbor and I’ve locked myself out of my apartment!”
As Mike allowed the bearded man to crawl out his though his window, in order to get in through his own, Mike shouted “hey what do you do for a living anyway?” in which Peter replied, “I own the fish market across the street!”
A light bulb in Mike’s head went off. He asked Peter for a job and just like that Mike’s career as a fishmonger was born.
Happily ever after
It was 1984. After a year of slangin’ fish together Peter realized how much of an asset Mike had become to him and his business. He was reliable, dedicated and unlike him and the rest of the staff actually came to work sober. Mike was so dedicated in fact that he turned down a career at Genentech, something he had worked so hard for all those years in college, in order to keep delivering fish for Peter. Looking back on it now he realizes he would have been retired 20 years ago if he’d of taken that job.
But Mike was a new Dad, the hours he worked at the fish market allowed him to spend his afternoons with his family and on top of that he was absolutely loving the fish biz. Peter offered him a partnership and over 30 years later, Mike still owns and operates Osprey Seafood to this day.
How Osprey Seafood made its mark
Osprey got on the map when they started selling scallops to a high profile restaurant in the Napa Valley. Peter was one of the first fishmongers back then to ship freshly caught fish from the east coast overnight to San Francisco. The French chefs loved him. They were blown away by the quality of their monkfish and scallops, just to name a couple and told all of their fellow chefs about it. After making a name for themselves in Napa it didn’t take long for Chefs in San Francisco to take notice. More and more accounts got added and Osprey Seafood became one of the most trusted names in the seafood business.
What’s really been going down in Hawaii these last few years?
Mike’s first knee-jerk reaction when I asked him about Hawaii’s recent fishing boat slavery scandal was “Those assholes! We aren’t buying any fish from Hawaii until they work this out.”
He hopped on the phone right away with his contact over at the Honolulu fish auction to find out what was going on over there. Unaware of the situation and not realizing the magnitude of it Mike’s buddy laughed it off in which Mike replied sternly, “you better look into this because this is not going to play out well”.
By the next day Mike had answers.
It turned out, due to legislation that had been passed in Hawaii, through a loop hole Hawaiian longline fishing boats technically had the right to employ undocumented foreign workers on their boats and because they did not have work visas they were not protected under U.S. labor laws. These workers had signed contracts and were being paid more than what they could make in their own countries.
What Hawaii had on their hands were a few longline fishing boats that would not allow their crew off the boat for 2-3 years because they could not legally be on Hawaiian land. The pay sucked, the working hours were ridiculously long and living conditions were rough. The reality is they were being abused.
Why you probably shouldn’t boycott in times like these.
As Mike had more time to sit back and digest this new information he started to look at the bigger picture.
Hawaii was and is one of the leaders known for their fishing techniques and sustainable practices, he thought. They did not need a mark on their record like this.
As he recalled there had been times in the past when campaigns such as “say no to swordfish” and “dolphin free tuna” brought more bad than good to the fishing industry.
He said that back in the 80’s when people stopped buying tuna to try and save the dolphins it had a tremendous impact on the gulf of Mexico’s fishing industry which has led to it’s downward spiral ever since.
Because of the campaign the fisherman went bankrupt and had to sell their boats.
As time passed and people “forgot” about the boycott they started buying tuna again only now there weren’t enough boats in the gulf to keep up with the demand.
Immigrants from Vietnam showed up to take advantage of the opportunity fishing tuna would have to offer. But unlike the original fisherman who had passed down important information from generation to generation they did not know the fishing cycles, about patterns, about what size the tuna should be when caught and where the spawning grounds were. They fished without knowledge and in doing so they depleted the gulf.
Mike said, “if people boycott buying fish from Hawaii all of these people are going to go out of business and these are the people who are doing it the right way.”
Is there even such thing as sustainable anymore?
When asked to touch on what sustainability in the fishing industry meant to him Mike answered, “I hate the word sustainable. It has no meaning anymore. Dump the term sustainable and start talking about responsible fishing practices. Stop buying crap from countries that we know are not playing the game and following the rules like China and Japan. Buy domestic or from New Zealand and Australia if you want to support sustainability. Places like Hawaii have the boats that are fishing responsibly.”
Hawaii handles business
Since the articles on forced labor went flying around the internet and the Hawaii Seafood Council started their investigation there has been some major changes.
The first thing they did was form a task force who evaluated all labor practices on all Hawaiian longline fishing boats.
They immediately implemented a system of checks and balances that would protect the foreign crews from further forced labor and abuse and improve working conditions.
A new standardized contract has been written and distributed to crew members in their own native languages.
Large retail and wholesale seafood companies were informed of the new criteria for responsible labor practices so that they could feel good about selling their products again.
The Honolulu fish auction, where these boats deliver and sell their catch, warned that any boats “that are unable to prove that forced labor is not being used” would be denied auction services. A zero tolerance policy has now been put into place.
Additionally the Hawaii Seafood Council promises to offer continued outreach and education for the Hawaii longline fishing boats on this subject of forced labor.
As stated in the Hawaii Seafood Council’s press release: “This fishery has proven itself over the years to be responsive and an industry leader in meeting the challenges arising from new information about fishery impacts on fish populations and protected species. The allegations of labor abuses present a serious and new challenge, and the industry is rallying to respond quickly. I am confident that through this process we will ferret out any vessel from the fleet that is involved in forced labor, labor abuse or substandard working conditions and treatment of the crew.” says John Kaneko, Task Force member and Program Director of the Hawaii Seafood Council.
The decision is up to you.
Was what the owners of these boats did morally wrong? Yes. Did the industry take it seriously. Yes. Did they take every action possible to right their wrongs. Yes.
In the end it comes down to this for me, Hawaii is dedicated to producing a high quality product in a way that is safe and sustainable for the environment.
Nobody’s perfect but I think if you learn from your mistakes you deserve a second chance, especially with a track record like Hawaii’s.
What will you do? Will you stop buying fish from Hawaii to stand up for what these crew members went through or will you support a fishery that at the end of the day produces some of the most sustainable seafood in the world?
I would love to hear your opinion in the comments section below.
I also would love to invite you to subscribe to The Healthy Locavore, for my weekly newsletter. I am so grateful for this community, thank you for being part of it!
Osprey seafood has a retail shop, open to the public, located at 1014 Wine Country ave. Napa, CA 94558. It is also one of the major seafood wholesalers in the bay area supplying restaurants such as Perbacco, Coqueta and Swan Oyster Depot.
Sarah Burchard is the author of The Healthy Locavore, a natural foods chef and experience host whose writing focuses on cooking, holistic health, supporting community and eating locally grown and made foods.