On Wednesday, West Coast crab fishermen filed a lawsuit alleging that 30 fossil fuel companies are to blame for the past several years of delayed seasons and disastrous economic losses due to ocean warming. Specific complaints include strict liability, failure to warn and negligence.
“The scientific linkage between the combustion of fossil fuels and ocean warming, which leads to domoic acid impacts in our fisheries, is clear,” said Noah Oppenheim, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, which filed the suit in California State Superior Court in San Francisco on behalf of California and Oregon crab fishermen. “We know it, and it’s time to hold that industry accountable for the damage they’ve caused.”
West Coast crab fishermen have experienced significant losses during the past three years, starting in the 2015-16 season when massive algal blooms caused by warm ocean temperatures resulted in a domoic acid outbreak that caused a months-long delay. The season was partially delayed again during the 2016-17 season for the same reason.
In California, Dungeness crab brought in over $47 million in 2017 and $83 million in 2016; the amount was down to $17 million in 2015, during the industry’s first major problem with domoic acid. Oppenheim said that that the 2015-16 closure cost the industry $110 million in lost revenue. There are nearly 1,000 Dungeness crab permit holders in California and Oregon.
This year, the commercial season is opening on time — Nov. 15 — but only south of Bodega Bay to the Mexican border. It will remain closed north of Bodega Head because domoic acid is showing up in crabs tested by the California Department of Public Health in certain parts of the north coast.
“Even though this year we’ve dodged a bullet, we still have a closed area, we’re still seeing hot tests,” said Oppenheim. “It could be that this year there could be a financial impact as well.”
In Oregon, the area of the coast that borders California has been closed to commercial and sports fishing since October because of domoic acid.
The lawsuit filed by the firm Sher Edling claims that the defendants, which include Chevron and Exxon Mobil, have known about the harm caused by climate change, including warming oceans, for 50 years.
“Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a global issue and requires global participation and actions. Lawsuits like this — filed by trial attorneys against an industry that provides products we all rely upon to power the economy and enable our domestic life — simply do not do that,” said Scott J. Silvestri, corporate media relations manager of Exxon Mobil Corp., in an email.
The cities of San Francisco and Oakland also filed lawsuits against five oil companies earlier this year, seeking to recover the cost of paying for seawalls to fend off sea-level rise. Those lawsuits were thrown out by a federal judge in June, who said that courts couldn’t decide who should be held accountable for as an issue as big as climate change.
In October, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations successfully sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Association to protect salmon and steelhead trout populations in the Columbia River basin from warm water temperatures caused by dams and climate change.