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Women In Commercial Fishing Take Sexual Harassment Into Own Hands

The Alaska State Commission for Human Rights says that it doesn't receive more complaints about sexual misconduct in commercial fishing than in other industries. However, women who work in the industry suspect the problem is all too common in the male-dominated field. One woman has taken the problem into her own hands.

Elma Burnham, who fishes herself, started a grass-roots organization called Strength of the Tides. Basically, she asks commercial fishermen, captains and other stakeholders to pledge zero tolerance for sexual harassment and assault in the industry.

"So I first put the pledge online and sent it out to people I'd worked with in the past," she told NPR of the organization she founded in 2017. "It got picked up more quickly than I expected."

After a couple of years of getting the word out through networking events and conferences, she has received nearly 300 pledges.

"Basically, another way to look at it is an anti-harassment policy for this group of people," she explains.

Ultimately, she would like to see many of these same organizations develop official anti-sexual harassment policies but, for now, she's glad to receive verbal agreements.

Fighting sexual harassment by agreement

It's hard to say how prevalent sexual harassment and assault are in commercial fishing. One former fisherwoman interviewed by NPR said it was common in the 70s and 80s when she was in the industry. In one incident, she was nearly raped and had to make a quick escape.

Boat captain Malcolm Milne, also the president of the North Pacific Fisheries Association, likes the pledge program because it doesn't create a lot of paperwork and he's just not that official about things.

He also thinks that, while sexual misconduct does happen, it probably isn't tolerated on the small boats he's associated with. (His boat carries a crew of four.)

Those boats are also too small to be covered by Title VII, the nation's major civil rights law which prohibits sexual harassment. The law only covers employers with 15 or more employees.

Burnham hopes that Strength of the Tides will at least provide information for would-be fisherwomen. They can use the list of pledge-takers to choose a safe boat to work on.

Do you think the Strength of the Tides pledge could be used as a model in Maryland and Virginia? How prevalent do you think sexual harassment and assault are in our local fisheries?

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