With Little Oversight, Ships Continue to Breed Toxic Behavior
In 1989, the US Congress passed a law requiring captains to report sexual assault allegations to the coast guard. But the absence of strong enforcement has left mariners vulnerable to abuse.
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In the 1980s, when Anne Mosness was a fishing boat captain off the coast of Washington State, she kept hearing troubling stories from colleagues—of workplace misogyny, such as when pin-up calendars of naked women were displayed on boats; sexual harassment; and worse at the hands of male coworkers and superiors at sea. One woman who later worked with Mosness said that while at sea for two months, she had been repeatedly sexually assaulted.
“Women were new in the industry then,” says Mosness. They faced a culture of intolerance and hostility that left them “extremely isolated.”
For six years, Mosness and a group of fishers toiled to persuade the US government to protect seafaring women. They conducted interviews, wrote newsletters, met with professional seafaring organizations, and lobbied Congress. Finally, in 1989, a law was passed that required captains of vessels in US waters—anything from a small river barge to a fishing boat to a cargo container—to report sexual assault complaints to the US Coast Guard, with a US $5,000 penalty for noncompliance.
Today, the military branch “encourage[s] the reporting of all instances of sexual assault or sexual harassment to the authorities so perpetrators can be prosecuted,” says a US Coast Guard representative in an emailed statement.
There’s only one problem.
“It’s been completely unenforced,” says Ryan Melogy, a lawyer and former officer in the US Navy Reserve. The result, he says, is a still-toxic workplace for mariners at sea.
Melogy, who witnessed a sexual assault on a ship in 2015 and only learned of the law in 2019, is trying to raise awareness about it through his organization, Maritime Legal Aid & Advocacy. Melogy is gathering stories from survivors of shipboard harassment and assault and sharing them on his organization’s social media. He also routinely submits Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the coast guard to access sexual assault reports from shipping companies to better understand how the law is—and is not—being enforced.
For instance, the result of one recent FOIA request shows that over the past 30 years no captain of a US maritime academy training vessel, which includes ships operated by the US Merchant Marine Academy, has reported a case of sexual assault—which either means that in three decades these ships have been sexual assault–free, or, more likely, that the captains are in violation of the law, says Melogy.
“If no one is getting punished, then it’s lawlessness. … You’re sailing out into a lawless void,” says Melogy.
A 1988 report to Congress hints at the horrific crimes that might have been prevented by stronger enforcement of the law. In one case, a female mariner was attacked while asleep and raped on a ship off the California coast. Instead of reporting the crime, the ship’s captain fired her for drinking. She brought her story to the coast guard and FBI, and it eventually emerged that the accused had eight other sexual assault complaints against him.
While maritime culture has evolved since the 1980s, Claudia Cimini, executive vice president of the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association, one of the oldest labor unions in the country, says it still has a long way to go before women and others feel safe and secure in the industry. In her view, the law is not enforced because blaming survivors of sexual assault for the crimes committed against them is just as prevalent at sea as it is on land.
“If [a woman] has no authority”—if she’s new in the industry, for instance—“she might not feel that she has any allies on the ship. That’s why we need this law, and it needs to be enforced,” says Cimini.
Cimini proposes many steps to address the problem—for example, if noncompliant captains are held accountable, and the guilty are punished, other captains would be more likely to fall in line, she says.
Unions, professional organizations, and informal networks can also empower isolated fishers and provide invaluable modes of support, Cimini says.
“If you have a union you belong to, you have someone you can talk to off the ship who can support you in your job,” says Cimini, who found out about the law’s existence from a professional network.
And one simple but effective fix could be through signage. Cimini says it’s common for ships to post warnings about the severe punishments for crew members who violate certain rules. “There was a time when trash and oil were dumped overboard, but that’s not the case anymore,” Cimini says. “And the way that changed was through awareness, through reminders that we have a zero-tolerance policy for this.” She believes that combating entrenched misogyny will be even harder than combating indifference toward the environment, but she thinks that enforcing the existing law is a good place to start.
“The people who create and support this toxic Lord of the Flies environment need to be held accountable,” she says.