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West Coast crab fishers file ‘industry against industry’ climate change lawsuit

The suit opens up a new frontier in climate change litigation.

A fisherman guides a bucket full of Dungeness Crab from a boat on Fisherman's Wharf November 28, 2005 in San Francisco, California. CREDIT: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
A fisherman guides a bucket full of Dungeness Crab from a boat on Fisherman's Wharf November 28, 2005 in San Francisco, California. CREDIT: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The West Coast’s largest coalition of fishers is suing 30 fossil fuel companies for their role in contributing to climate change, which they say is devastating the region’s fishing industry.

In a lawsuit filed Wednesday in the San Francisco County Superior Court, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA) is seeking damages from dozens of fossil fuel companies on behalf of crab fishers and their suffering businesses, along with their communities in California and Oregon. Chevron, ExxonMobil, and BP are among the defendants named in the case.

“The world’s oceans are changing, and commercial fishermen and -women, their businesses, their communities, and their families are paying the price,” the suit states.

PCFFA alleges that greenhouse gas emissions generated by the named companies have resulted in warming waters off the West Coast. That in turn has contributed to toxic algal blooms, which harm wildlife and also pose a danger to people. Different types of blooms in states like Florida have also been linked to climate change and sparked a dramatic economic downturn.

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Crab fishers on the West Coast say the algal blooms produce a toxin, domoic acid, which has been appearing in Dungeness crab meat. Ingestion of domoic acid can result in amnesic shellfish poisoning — which can in turn cause brain damage and potentially death in humans.

That means crabbing season, which typically spans eight months, is getting shorter and starting later in the year. The season has dramatically decreased in a number of areas, with at least one — a fishery north of San Francisco — delaying its opening by six months two years ago. That trend began in 2015 and has since worsened, with seasons, which usually begin in November, now beginning as late as March. While the season is largely opening as expected in 2018 after shortening in 2016 and 2017, part of northern California’s coastline remains closed.

“Defendants, major corporate members of the fossil fuel industry, have known for nearly a half century that unrestricted production and use of their fossil fuel products create greenhouse gas pollution that warms the planet, changes our climate, and disrupts the oceans,” the suit states.

Despite that knowledge, PCFFA contends, fossil fuel companies have failed to curb the carbon emissions associated with their industry, all while working to “discredit the growing body of publicly available scientific evidence” regarding the dangers of climate change.

The 91-page lawsuit does not specify an exact amount in damages demanded. But the crabbing industry is responsible for thousands of jobs and the lawsuit calls for sweeping new measures to protect the livelihoods of fishers.

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“The fossil fuel companies named in our lawsuit knowingly caused harm, and they need to be held accountable,” said Noah Oppenheim, PCFFA’s executive director, in a statement. “We are seeking to implement measures, at the fossil fuel industry’s expense, that will help crabbers adapt to a world in which domoic acid flareup’s will be increasingly common, and also help those crabbers who suffer financial losses as a result.”

The lawsuit opens up a new frontier in climate change litigation, which has largely seen states and municipalities pursuing damages from fossil fuel companies. Cities and counties in California, Colorado, and Washington, along with New York City, have all sought to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for climate change, as has the state of Rhode Island.

Those efforts have largely met with major legal setbacks, with judges unclear whether or not the issue of climate change accountability should be determined in court. A landmark climate change lawsuit filed by 21 young people against the federal government has also met with resistance — on November 8, a court put the case on hold yet again.

But the PCFFA lawsuit is pitting businesses against each other, marking a new approach.

“Businesses and other sectors like the fishing industry are increasingly suffering financial losses stemming from climate impacts knowingly caused by companies like Exxon,” said Richard Wiles, executive director of the Center for Climate Integrity, in a statement. “This lawsuit is significant in that it opens up a new legal front pitting industry against industry.”

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It is unclear if Wednesday’s lawsuit will meet with hurdles similar to those facing other climate change litigation efforts. But fishers are hopeful that the lawsuit will draw attention to their plight and to the havoc carbon emissions are wreaking on their lives.

In a statement shared by PCFFA, John Beardon, who fishes for Dungeness crabs out of Crescent City in California, emphasized that “it’s obvious the oceans are getting warmer.” This is a situation that is “bad for crabs and other fish, and it’s bad for those of us who make a living” seeking them out, he said.

“The last three years have been really hard. Our community came together and held a fish fry to help our crew members,” said Beardon. “But fish fries and disaster relief are no solution to these closures we’re now seeing year-after-year-after year.”