A bill that would require the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to develop a policy to prevent and respond to sexual assault and harassment unanimously passed during a Senate committee meeting.

The bipartisan bill, S.2206 “National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Sexual Harassment and Assault Prevention Act,” requires NOAA to develop policies to make it easy to report incidents regardless of time or location; establishes advocates to assist and support victims through reporting and sentencing processes; and requires annual updates on the success of the new policies. The bill passed on November 18, 2015.

Whistle blowers

Whistle blowers who spoke out against NOAA’s lack of response to sexual harassment and assault allegations brought the issue to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation’s attention.

“I was shocked to learn that NOAA lacked their own policies to address sexual assault and harassment,” Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK), a co-sponsor on the bill, said in a statement. NOAA currently follows the Department of Commerce’s sexual harassment policy – its lack of an internal policy can create problems for the numerous NOAA employees and contractors who serve at sea or in remote regions.

Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), another co-sponsor, said, “We must do everything we can to prevent sexual assault and harassment, and support the victims of these crimes – no matter who they are, where they live or where they work.” Sullivan and Cantwell were joined by five other sponsors for the bill: Senators Brian Schatz (D-HI), John Thune (R-SD), Bill Nelson (D-FL), Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Roger Wicker (R-MS).

The legislation would address cases like that of Julia O’Hern, a NOAA contractor and oceanographer who in September of this year wrote about her experience on board a research vessel in The Washington Post. “Try operating a half-million-dollar shipboard gyrocompass and multibeam sonar system while the captain of the boat shoves a meter stick between your legs, asking, ‘Are you moody because it’s that time of the month?’” O’Hern recalled.

“It was soul-crushing to realize that I was expected to endure sexual harassment at sea as though it was no different than rough waters or long hours,” O’Hern wrote.

“Geographic isolation – whether on a ship at sea or at a remote duty post – magnifies the harm from sexual harassment and assault,” Senator Schatz said. “NOAA employees face both.  I hope this legislation prevents future incidents, and brings justice for victims.”

Additional Measures

In addition to reducing the incidence of sexual harassment and assault, the bill also reauthorizes the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps Act of 2002 and reauthorizes the Hydrographic Services Improvement Act of 1998.

The NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps Act establishes officers’ rankings and promotions within NOAA and defines their responsibilities. The Hydrographic Services Improvement Act requires NOAA’s Administrator to promote safe, efficient and environmentally sound marine transportation, among other responsibilities, and oversee the collection of hydrographic services, which include the management, maintenance and dissemination of bathymetric, hydrographic, shoreline, geodetic and geospatial information, in addition to making nautical charts, nautical information databases, and other products derived from hydrographic data

“This legislation also reauthorizes funding to ensure that we have accurate and up-to-date nautical charts and coastal maps – which is critically important throughout the country, but especially in areas like Alaska – as we continue to move forward with new transportation lanes in the Arctic,” said Senator Sullivan.

By Elizabeth Goldbaum, GSA Science Policy Fellow

A ship approaches Elephant Island, off the coast of Antarctica, on January 1962. Credit: Rear Admiral Harley D. Nygren, NOAA Corps. NOAA.