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Web Editor's Note: Attorney Wayne Anthony Ross copied the Bar Rag on the following letter to the Alaska Supreme Court, with the Bar Rag's editor unable to resist commentary.


Questioning gender P.C.
Dear Justice Bryner:

I have read your decision in the case of Lake And Peninsula Borough vs. Norquest Seafoods, Inc. et al. In that decision I note that you refer to 'Bristol Bay fishers.'

I was born and raised in Wisconsin and have only lived in Alaska since 1968. I didn't know there were fishers in Bristol Bay. We had fishers in Wisconsin. Occasionally we would see their furry little bodies alongside some stream or lake. They were neat little animals and, I am told, are part of the weasel family. Does the Alaska Department of Fish and Game know about the fishers of Bristol Bay? Do you have a picture of one of them? I'd like to see if they look like the fishers we'd see in Wisconsin.

When I mentioned that I was going to write you and ask you about these animals, another attorney in my office suggested that you must have meant 'fishermen' when you mentioned 'fishers.' He told me that there is a group of people (seeking to be 'politically correct'), who are trying to change American language to make it less gender specific. He gave me examples such as referring to a 'mailman' as a 'mailperson.' I asked him how a 'male person' could not be considered gender specific.
And if you followed the tenets of that group, what would you do to differentiate between a male person who works with the U.S. Post Office and a female who works for the Post Office? Would you call one a 'male mailperson' and the other a 'female mailperson'? In the first case (the male mailperson), if you talked like that real folks would think you were a stutterer. And in the second case (the female mailperson) real folks would think you couldn't make up your mind.
My associate then tried to give me another example. He said that these politically correct folks often call a woman chairing a meeting a 'chair,' rather than calling her a 'chairman.' I told him that calling a woman a 'chair' is almost as bad as calling her a 'doormat.' Calling one of the ladies a 'chair' is very demeaning, and no gentleman would permit such a thing.
'No,' I told my associate, no justice of our Supreme Court would belong to such a crazy group.
So send me a picture of a Bristol Bay fisher, if you can get me one.
Thanks a lot.

-- Wayne Anthony Ross, Attorney at Law

P.S. I showed this letter to my paralegal. After reading the first paragraph, she wondered aloud whether you had really meant 'fissures,' rather than 'fishers.' If that is the case, you don't need to send a picture since I know what those 'fissures' look like, having been out to 'Earthquake Park' a number of years ago.


The Editor rises to the bait

Mr. Ross has baited his hook, intending to draw Justice Bryner into his net of linguistic and semantic danger.
We at the Bar Rag cast no aspersions on the term 'fishers' (though we tend to avoid its use, preferring instead 'anglers,' 'long-liners' or 'deep sea castabouts,' and in the case of Russian trawlers, 'poachers.').

When referring to those who sport fish (note the third person passive approach that skirts the issue), particularly those who fish with me -- 'Treble Hook Tom' -- the terms 'unlucky' or 'discouraged' usually modify either 'fishers' or 'fishermen' or 'people trying to fish.' Here at the Bar Rag, we debaited whether to wade into this issue, reluctant to spawn more controversy. Fearing an imperfect storm may be a-brewing, and not wanting to see Mr. Ross or the court system awash in a sea of confusion, we offer the following history for the edification of our readers.

The first reference to the term 'fishers' in Alaska law appears in a head note in Lind v. Markley, 13 Alaska 665 (D. Alaska Terr. 1952). The headnote provides that the 'custom of salmon fishers who set gill nets was to respect area used by another fisherman on previous year.' There are two obvious drawbacks here: One, this term is in the headnote only, thus, it is not a part of the decision, so it doesn't count. Two, as gender-neutral as that term is, in the same sentence the author falls back on 'fisherman' thus obviating any genuine effort at enlightenment and equality. Simply put, this is a clear typo.
The first real use of this term came in Woods and Rohde, Inc. v. State, Dept. of Labor, 565 P.2d 138, 150 (Alaska 1977). The author of this decision was, of course, Justice Rabinowitz. In Woods, he stated: 'In Nathanson we concluded that fishers such as Nathanson could not harbor an actual subjective expectation of privacy in conducting their crabbing operations in the waters of the state.' The significance of this decision is not so much that it is the first real use of the gender-neutral term 'fishers,' but the pun slipped in there (by some overworked law clerk, no doubt). Using the term 'harbor' when referring to a fishing case when it doesn't refer to an actual harbor is, well, kind of funny. Not knee-slapping funny, but sort of funny. Justice Rabinowitz used the term again in his dissent in Rose v. Commercial Fisheries Entry Com'n, 647 P.2d 154, 164 (Alaska 1982), discussing 'purse seine fishers.'

Thus, we go from one obscure and probably incorrect reference in the 1950's, no reference at all in the 1960's (when Mr. Ross points out he arrived in Alaska), one reference in the 1970's, and then, several references in the 1980's.

By the 1990's, most of the decisions involving fishing disputes used the term. This sentence, written in 2001, reflects the modern usage of the term: 'Fishers and a fish packing company discussed a possible arrangement for compensating the fishers for roe herring they were to deliver to the packing company.' Magill v. Nelbro Packing Co., 2001 WL 995976 (Alaska 2001).

So, there you have it. The scales of justice and the scales of fish sometimes interact, and in the process it is easy to get left behind as our language changes. But don't get hooked on the term 'fishers' in today's economic times. It is just a matter of time before we start calling those who fish for a living... farmers.
-- Tom Van Flein

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