Women in Alaska’s fishing industry hope to curb sexual harassment

May 7, 2019

Robin McAllistar and two of her crew members on the deck of F/V Valiant Maid during the late-80s.
Credit Courtesy of Robin McAllistar

Many women in the commercial fishing industry say sexual harassment is part of the job. But, being on a boat for weeks or months at a time can make harassment hard to escape and seeking help especially difficult. Now, there’s a push to make the seas safer for women. 

Robin McAllistar is sitting on her couch when her younger friend Jude Huerta walks through the door. Huerta is 19-years-old and wants to commercial fish for the first time this year. McAllistar fished commercially years ago, and recently the friends have been talking about how Huerta can remain safe as a woman new to the industry.

“It’s really sad that that has to be said but it’s important to know,” Huerta said.

“It’s better to say it ahead of time than regret it later,” McAllistar replied.

McAllistar is speaking from experience.  When she was fishing in the ‘70s and ‘80s, at times, she was the only woman on the boat. Her advice for young fishermen like Hureta: find a way to get off the vessel if they feel unsafe.

“You can hop a tender when you're done delivering fish….” she said. “If things have gotten bad, don't negotiate with them that you'll be dropped later. Get off the boat.”

McAllistar has experienced her fair share of bad situations. She said she once was stuck on a boat with a captain who was constantly drinking. She said he assaulted her in her room and she had to fight him off.

“I mean physically grappling and trying to get through and get out and get away,” she said. “I wasn't raped, but that was only because I got out.”

The next day, she hopped onto another boat. While the experience didn’t drive her to quit fishing altogether, that was her last season and now she works as a therapist.

It’s hard to say just how common McAllistar’s experience was during her time fishing and if things have changed in the decades since. Statistics on sexual harassment in the industry aren’t readily available. The Alaska State Commission for Human Rights does take complaints about sexual harassment and discrimination, but it doesn’t receive a large number from the fishing industry specifically.

Still, others say it’s a problem they want changed.

Elma Burnham is the founder of Strength of the Tides. It’s a grassroots movement that aims to support and empower women who work on the water. The organization hosts events, profiles women in the maritime industry on social media and fosters community. But the main part of the movement is asking fishermen, boat captains and others in the industry to sign a pledge demanding zero tolerance for sexual harassment and assault. Burnham publishes the list of those who have made the pledge online.

“Basically, another way to look at it, is as an anti-harassment policy for this group of people,” she said.

Burnham is a commercial fisherman, and she hopes the list will be used as a roadmap that will help women who are seeking work in the industry stay safe. Eventually, she would like to push for boats and organizations to implement written policies on sexual harassment. But for some, a verbal agreement is enough.  

Malcolm Milne owns the (F/V) Captain Cook and manages a crew of four. He’s also president of The North Pacific Fisheries Association, a commercial stakeholder group.

“The one thing I don’t approve of is more paperwork, necessarily,” Milne said. “I have plenty to do as it is.”

He said he’s supportive of what Burnham is doing. He already talks to his crew about sexual harassment but doesn’t have a formal policy because he said he’s not that official about things.  

He adds it has been a topic of discussion in his industry group, most of whom are small boats employing a handful of people.

“People recognize that it does happen in circumstances,” he said. “But in the smaller family boats that I'm associated with, I think people don't have any tolerance for it. So there's not really an issue I would say.”

He said that his industry is already good at vetting people to make sure they are safe to work with.

Back at McAllistar’s house, she said more needs to be done to tackle the issue.  

“The truth is, I really like the wild west of the ocean, just the way it is, and the fleets just the way they are,” she said. “But people should be sexually safe.”

McAllistar said she's seen more women enter the industry over the years, which she said is the most promising sign of change.