The Strength of the Tides: An Interview with Elma Burnham

A love of fishing is one of the best things I got from my year-and-a-half stint as a public radio reporter in bush Alaska. Not rod-and-reel fishing, though I did some of that too – I mean commercial fishing. Bristol Bay is home to the biggest wild sockeye salmon fishery in the world, and it’s a heady scene: planefuls of deckhands and cannery workers flood the small town of Dillingham; vessels prowl the fishing grounds in all kinds of weather; the summer solstice brings stunning midnight sunsets on the bay.

What really caught my heart, though, are the people of the fishery. They’re adventurous, eclectic, and tough as steel, often with the diligent sense of humor it takes to cohabit a small space with stinky crewmates for weeks.

I first met Elma Burnham in June of 2015 at a party in the boatyard. I think she was rocking Xtra Tuf boots and a trucker hat and dancing with some other rowdy fisherwomen, and, as a newcomer, I remember wanting desperately to be a part of that community. Later, it turned out Elma and I have a mutual close friend… and I'm lucky to say a long-distance friendship was born!

A few days after President Trump was elected, Elma drafted a pledge of respect and affirmation for the safety and equality of women in the maritime industries. The pledge would become the basis for her project, The Strength of the Tides is Hers Also.

 Fisherman and writer Elma Burnham (third from left) founded Strength of the Tides and provides marketing consulting for small businesses participating in the food system. photo: Instagram @strengthofthetides

Fisherman and writer Elma Burnham (third from left) founded Strength of the Tides and provides marketing consulting for small businesses participating in the food system. photo: Instagram @strengthofthetides

Hannah Colton: What is Strength of the Tides?

Elma Burnham: Strength of the Tides is about celebrating and empowering women who work in maritime industries. We have goals to do that in four different ways. The first is representation, so the Instagram; just the whole idea that if you can witness people doing it then the dream becomes alive. The second is community, and that’s just getting women together discuss their shared experiences and give advice.

The third part is solidarity and accountability. That’s the pledge. A lot of fisheries are made up of these tiny small businesses, but it’s unclear who holds them accountable or who to go. So the pledge, for now, is just asking people to sign and say out loud that they’re supportive and respectful of women who work on the water.

The last part is education. I would love to have hard skills workshops, women teaching women net mending or knots or small engines, because it’s just very vulnerable for anybody to come in as a greenhorn without those skills.

Describe the fishing cultures that you came up in.

My connection to Alaska starts with my parents, because they spent most of the ‘80s in Anchorage. Once they had kids, they moved closer to my dad’s family on the East Coast. I grew up on an island off the coast of Connecticut and commuted by boat to school, so I had some of the maritime stuff in my life growing up. My aunt and uncle are oyster farmers, and folks from my hometown participated in different fisheries, like lobstering. Southern New England has a lot of similar shared culture to the Pacific Northwest.

I started going to Bristol Bay when I was 18, after my first year of college. I was originally a nanny for my dad’s godson at a setnet fish camp outside of Dillingham. The next summer, I started crewing on a set-net skiff and that basically evolved into running a boat.

Working with a crew setnetting in Bristol Bay, everybody goes home to their cabins on the same beach, so there’s a community culture that is unique. It’s a little different than just tying up and anchoring up next to another boat. You get to get off the boat and have a shared space.

Can you describe what setnetting is for people who have zero fishing vocabulary?

Setnetting is a type of commercial fishing that, in Bristol Bay, means you work in an open skiff that’s between 22 and 30 feet. It’s a gillnet setup where one end of the net is anchored onto the shoreline and stays wet with the tide, so you get to move the net to catch fish in that area. So the net is anchored on either side and down at the bottom and floated at the top with corks.

 Friend of the project Chloe setnets in Bristol Bay in 2017. Photo: Instagram

Friend of the project Chloe setnets in Bristol Bay in 2017. Photo: Instagram

When was the first time you were aware of the difference in the way men and women were treated, not necessarily in the fishing industry? I guess I’m asking, like, how you became a feminist.

What happened is, honestly, when Trump was elected, I was doing a lot of reflecting on that and how disappointed and devastated I was and what that meant for me personally. Because obviously [his presidency] affects a lot of people more severely than it affects me. But I feel like affecting change is most successful when you’re doing it within a community that’s your own or that you understand the most. So for me I was like, what can we do about this?

My own fishing experience has been super positive, for the most part. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t experienced different types of misogyny. On the water, it’s mostly these micro aggressions that are very exhausting. I mean, the whole experience is exhausting. Especially in Bristol Bay, it’s a sprint of a season, and everyone’s worn out after day one, pretty much, and just powering through until it’s over. But I think for women there’s a different kind of wearing out.

Women know what they’re signing up for. They can pee in a bucket — it’s fine. What I’m talking about is respect.

One season in Bristol Bay, I got there early, we started fishing, and I was the only woman among our setnet camp for a couple weeks. And I just remember a few other women finally showing up and just being their sweet selves and looking me in the eye like, “how are you?” And I was just immediately was crying because fishing’s hard and that’s not the type of nurturing and care I was getting from my great crew. They’re a bunch of dudes who I love and really care about, but it was just a totally different kind of checking in.

As far as my own journey as a feminist, it was almost like the positive experiences made me realize it more so than negative ones. But I didn’t identify that way for so long. In middle school and early high school, I was like “I’m not a feminist, I don’t need that.” I was just really focused on this chip on my shoulder, where I was like – Mia Hamm-style – “anything you can do I can do better.” I was definitely a jock, and I felt like I didn’t need [feminism] and it was this bitchy thing I didn’t identify with. And then, god, I don’t know what happened! [laughs] I went to school, I started reading more, just investing in what feminism means, really, today. And fishing, too, I think that also informed that this was something that I want to say out loud.

Something we don’t talk about as much is all the benefits feminism also has for men, right? They’re not superhuman, they also get exhausted and down. It’s like, how much could your male crew members also benefit from that kind of looking out for one another, if it was more socially acceptable?

Yeah, absolutely, and I would love to see more of that. But what I found fishing was a different expectation in whose responsibility that is. Some of the micro aggressions I’ve experienced in male-dominated industries or sports is that [women are] cheerleaders for everyone. The conversation we’re having is that the men deserve that nurturing too, but it’s like, men are capable of it too.

The bakery I worked in was also male-dominated, and one time my supervisor was like, “I know everyone enjoys your company and you offer a really good balance.” And I know that sounds like a compliment, and it is, and it’s such a little thing, but what he’s suggesting is that I’m responsible for helping to creating this culture, which relies on my femininity or my positive nurturing.

Same thing with fishing. I’ve seen dudes throw temper tantrums – they’re just tired, sleep-deprived, throwing a tantrum, and everyone’s just like “take a chill pill… hot-headed… take a walk.” But if I were to blow up like that, it would really just fuck up our whole camp for the day.

It’s just challenging people, like: “Oh, you have a woman on your team and you’re glad about it, but – why?”

 Friend of the project Rose is co-owner of Shoreline Wild Salmon. photo: Instagram

Friend of the project Rose is co-owner of Shoreline Wild Salmon. photo: Instagram

When I googled “strength of the tides,” a lot of the results are like Astronomy 101 and The Science of Tides… and it just had me thinking about how tides are this mysterious force that people don’t really understand, outside of people who live on the ocean. Also the tides are connected to the moon and cycles, all these feminine archetypes. Were you thinking of that when you chose the name?

That’s really interesting. I would first say that, despite living by the tide for large chunks of my life, I still don’t understand it. It blows my mind. It’s insane! If you think about how much water moves in a 12-hour or 6-hour period and how much water is on earth, it’s just like… NAH. [laughs] So despite having those experiences, it’s still mind-blowing.

The phrase originally comes from my undergrad, Middlebury College in the Green Mountains of Vermont. On the chapel, sort of the center of campus it says: “The Strength of the Hills is His Also.” During my entire undergrad experience, people talked about that big capital H for His. I originally wrote the pledge independently of the name, and then for the Women’s March I made this tank top that said, “The Strength of the Tides is Hers Also.” So it’s definitely a reference to that Middlebury phrase, which I think is a Biblical reference, I’m not exactly sure.

I am definitely intrigued by what you’re saying, like the allure and mystery that’s part of femininity and our connections to the ocean and the moon. I think so much of our physicality is such a mystery to me. Like, when I talk about the tide being confusing, even our self blows my mind. If humans are 70% water, then there’s no way that a 20-foot tide (when the average is 14 feet) doesn’t fuck with us, too. Those types of things, menstrual cycles, the moon… I don’t understand it, but I’m confident it’s connected.

Have you gotten any pushback to the project, either online, or maybe more subtle pushback from men or women that you know? What kind of feedback have you seen?

It’s been largely positive, which has been great. I’ll get an email from someone who’s like “I work on this kind of boat and I wanted to say hi, and send me a tank top!” I think the internet is a great tool for building community that wouldn’t otherwise be a shared space. Like, this woman who works on a tall ship in the Caribbean has more shared experience with me on a boat in Alaska, than me and my high school friends, in that department.

As far as pushback, as you were hinting at, a lot of it has been super subtle. The other day, my friend me to this other person in town who’s in the maritime industry. Describing the project, I used the phrase “creating space” for women on the water. And I use that term as in mentally and emotionally creating space. But this person, an older white man, started talking about sleeping quarters on a boat and how there’s only four bunks… And I was like, okay, I’m not really talking about that. Like, women know what they’re signing up for, they can pee in a bucket; it’s fine. What I’m talking about is respect. Then he sort of went on to explain how women should be tough, and they should be prepared to slap people upside the head if they’re out of line... And I was like, you know, most of the women I know who work on boats are totally capable of that, but that shouldn’t have to be their responsibility. That’s just an example where this guy was challenging it in this weird way.

It seems like there’s so many layers of potential misunderstanding there. Working [at the setnet camp in Bristol Bay] last summer for a couple weeks allowed me to understand how complicated those social dynamics are. There’s seniority, attitude, generation difference… There’s so many factors that determine how people interact in that sort of macho, intense culture.

And that’s just making me think of this whole other can of worms: sexuality on the fishing grounds. I often struggle with what my sexual being is when I’m working. There’s a lot of talk about women who sleep around in the fishery, so you’re like, I don’t wanna be that. So then you just put your sexuality dormant, because you’re trying so hard to be on the team and one of the guys.

 Elma napping on Nushagak Bay. photo: Instagram @eccburnham

Elma napping on Nushagak Bay. photo: Instagram @eccburnham

That’s super interesting. There was a moment last summer when I was hanging out on the deck [of our mutual friend Lindsay's cabin] with the crew, and some guy walked up and said to Lindsay’s brother, “Taylor, is this your wife?” And I was like, deadpan: “Actually, I’m Lindsay’s wife.” [Laughs] And he just didn’t know what to say and he walked away. But I felt backed into this weird corner, like I wasn’t allowed to be just a person, I had to be attached to someone.

Yeah, I’ve also been like, “I’m a fisherman in Bristol Bay,” and someone will be like, “Oh yeah? Who’s your dad?” They’re just assuming you’re on a boat that’s not your own. I don’t own a boat or a permit and I’m not a captain, but I have plenty of women friends who are of that status, and what are they supposed to say to that?  

But I mean, that’s part of the community piece. I love that conversation, and I want to keep having that conversation with other women who’ve had that experience.

Even just about dress. Like when I’m in my rain gear, I lose some of my femininity, and what does that feel like? There’s this Moe Bowstern poem about how you don’t know there’s another woman on the water until she takes her hood off and you see her ponytail and you’re just waving [laughs] just to be like what’s up!

Like the gear mutes or erases your femininity.

Yeah, it’s a risk. You’re trying so hard to be respected as one of the crew. I remember my first season I didn’t bring a dress or anything like that. This other woman, after she steamed, she would put on these feminine clothes. And I was so jealous, like – you look so beautiful! There’s this other part of you that’s on this beach that’s not to be expected! After that I would always bring a skirt or dress, just to put that identity on.

One time at [fish camp], I steamed and washed my hair and I was feeling so clean, and then I put on this goofy skirt. And this friend of mine from a different crew walked over and was like, “sweet shorts, dude!” [laughs] And I was just like “God dammit, COME ON, let me have this!”

How has your thinking about the project changed since this fall and Me Too? Like, the whole media landscape around this topic has changed so much in the last six months.

I do feel like it’s all wrapped up in the whole national conversation. The silver lining of the media attention is that people sort of understand [Strength of the Tides] more, I think. People are like, yeah, I’ve heard about all this terrible stuff that women experience.

But also, people shouldn’t have to have a reason to support women. First of all, no one should have to re-hash their trauma for you. Secondly, if I don’t have trauma that fits your definition, am I still allowed to ask for the preventative maintenance of protecting women? It’s almost like you have to have [trauma] to take action about it. That part to me is very frustrating.

In fishing, this phrase I learned a lot is “preventative maintenance.” It’s like, before fishing starts you’re going to change the oil, you’re gonna grease everything up. I like to explain to fishermen that this project is just one version of preventative maintenance. It’s like, if you put all this time into planning what you’re gonna feed your crew this summer because you don’t want them to wear out, you should also be willing to take people’s identities onboard with you.

It’s so frustrating to be asked to check your identity at the door. It’s like, no, that’s not how that works! I am Elma the fisherman or Hannah the fisherman or whatever, and therefore I come with however many years of identity into my role. If you could do something to not wear out that person, why wouldn’t you? Why wouldn’t you promise, via this public pledge, that you’re gonna create a space of respect?

 Friend of the project Tele runs Nerka Sea Frozen Salmon. photo: Instagram

Friend of the project Tele runs Nerka Sea Frozen Salmon. photo: Instagram

Find Elma’s project at strengthofthetides.org, on Facebook or on Instagram. If you happen to be in the Astoria, Oregon area on Saturday, February 24th, check out her workshop at the FisherPoets Gathering.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.