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In the summer of 2013, a male captain was accused of raping and assaulting a female fisher multiple times during their week-long isolation in Prince William Sound, Alaska.
This horrific encounter points to a sobering problem for female fishers: the specter of sexual assault. Harassment and abuse aren’t necessarily more common in the fishing industry, but several factors make the situation on boats unique. For one thing, fishing involves spending weeks in a confined workplace, often in remote regions with no cellphone service. For another, many fishing vessels constitute their own small businesses, with no human resources department or codified policy that workers can turn to. And as with workers in other rural industries such as forestry and agriculture, who have fewer support systems to access than employees in urban areas, fishers tend to experience and grapple with abuse on their own.
That’s why Bristol Bay, Alaska, fisher Elma Burnham is asking her colleagues to sign a safety pledge that she created in 2017. To date, more than 500 captains, deckhands, processors, and tenders have signed the pledge, promising to uphold an understanding of consent and to work toward abolishing abuse in the industry; to intervene against harassment; to provide a safe place to work; and to pay, teach, and actively promote fishers who aren’t cisgender men.
Burnham grew up in an oystering family off Long Island Sound in Connecticut and now works as a Bristol Bay set-netter, fishing for sockeye salmon during the summer. She started developing her pledge after the 2016 US presidential election, which for her felt like a symbol of entrenched misogyny. She wanted to see what she could do on a local level, so she started Strength of the Tides, a group that brings female, transgender, and nonbinary fishers together to network, support one another, and ask for boat owners to sign the pledge. Although organizations like this are more common in commercial fishing, shipping, and other maritime sectors, says Burnham, they are rare to nonexistent in the world of small-scale fisheries.
Although Burnham says that she’s never faced harassment or abuse on the job, she knows “that’s not the case for everyone.”
“We understand that a piece of paper is not necessarily going to be the thing that’s going to protect anyone,” continues Burnham. “But at least young people who are getting started in the fishery for the first time—many who are doing so without any family connections—at least they can see if they’re joining a business that has the basic vocabulary.” Beyond the pledge, the private Strength of the Tides Facebook group is a space where fishers can inquire about new employers: is this person safe? Do you know someone who can vouch for them?
More women commercially fish in Alaska than in many other parts of the world—up to 12 percent of permit holders in the state are women, according to Marysia Szymkowiak, a researcher who studies gender and fishing at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. She says there are many reasons why more women don’t fish—for example, the industry is hierarchical, and permits are hard to come by. Older captains may also hold long-standing superstitions about women on boats, adds Burnham.
“[Online you see] plenty of slandering comments that aren’t necessarily related to Strength of the Tides but that support old superstitions that women are bad luck on boats, or that people hire women for very specific disrespectful reasons,” says Burnham, elaborating that those reasons might include hiring a woman for her emotional labor or presumed cooking prowess.
For women, the inherent danger of working on a boat has a chilling effect on their participation in the industry, says Szymkowiak.
“I think we often want to tell the story of success: of the women who conquered the odds and are now legends in our fisheries,” she adds. “But sometimes the heroines never crossed the threshold between the dock and boat because the potential of danger on the other side was too great, and those that did paid a tremendous price. For every success story, how many dropped out?”
Burnham says that the overall response to the pledge has been positive. She expected trolling and harassment for her efforts, but dismissive comments and refusals to participate have been the worst she’s encountered.
“People are like, ‘Cool, girl power,’ and that’s all they have to say,” explains Burnham, noting that many walk away without taking the extra step of signing the pledge.
One person who did sign the pledge is Steve Kurian, the owner of Wild for Salmon, a Pennsylvania-based business that sells fresh and frozen Alaska sockeye salmon. Kurian, who knows Burnham from work, says he signed the pledge because there’s a real need for positive, explicit messaging encouraging women to join the industry.
“We want to make sure women feel safe and to get more women on boats,” he says.
For Burnham’s part, the pledge is only the first step. Going forward, she plans to build Strength of the Tides by highlighting female, transgender, and nonbinary fishers on Instagram every week, in hopes of fostering a community that encourages more people to embrace the seafaring life, in Alaska and beyond.