Fishermen are still waiting for permission to catch Dungeness crabs off California’s northernmost coast this season — and they want oil companies to pay for the delay.
State officials have postponed the start of the commercial Dungeness crab season because of high levels of a neurotoxin called domoic acid. Similar closures have wreaked economic havoc on the industry in recent years.
The neurotoxin’s presence in crabs has been linked to warming ocean waters, one of the many effects of human-caused climate change.
That’s why the West Coast’s largest organization of commercial fishermen is suing more than a dozen oil companies, arguing they have knowingly peddled a product that threatens ocean life and the people whose economic fortunes depend on it.
The oil companies “engaged in a coordinated, multi-front effort to conceal and deny their own knowledge of those threats, discredit the growing body of publicly available scientific evidence, and persistently create doubt,” the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Assns. said in its lawsuit, filed last month.
“Families and businesses that depend on the health and productivity of the Dungeness crab fishery to earn their livings suffer the consequences,” the federation said.
The fishermen’s group joins cities from California to New York that have sued the fossil fuel industry over its role in causing climate change.
The lawsuits have been compared to legal actions brought against the tobacco industry, seeking damages to treat health consequences of smoking.
The legal issues are similar in the fishermen’s case. What makes their lawsuit different is that it pits one industry against another, said Ann Carlson, co-director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA. Carlson said it’s possible the courts will be more sympathetic to the fishermen.
“It’s really interesting to have a group of plaintiffs alleging specific economic harm to their livelihoods. I think it’s compelling in a lot of ways,” she said. “It’s true the governments are alleging they’re being harmed financially by climate change, but it’s a little more nebulous than having fishermen who have been harmed.”
Sean Comey, a spokesperson for Chevron, one of the oil companies named in the lawsuit, said the case is “without merit and counterproductive to real solutions to climate change.”
“The lawsuit seeks to penalize the production of reliable, affordable energy, which has been lawful and encouraged by governments. Energy companies and their products are vital to the global economy,” Comey said in an email.
Representatives for ExxonMobil and BP, which were also named in the lawsuit, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Small-scale fishermen in California rely on Dungeness crabs, said Noah Oppenheim, the federation’s executive director.
“It’s one of the most lucrative fisheries in the region,” he said. “Our communities on the north coast are generally rural and highly dependent on this economic sector.”
Climate change has been making the Dungeness fishery less lucrative lately. Most of the extra heat trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere by rising levels of carbon dioxide is absorbed by the planet’s oceans.
Off the coasts of California and Oregon, extra heat has helped fuel algal blooms, which have led to dangerous concentrations of domoic acid in areas normally scoured by crab fishermen.
According to Oppenheim, there had never been a domoic acid closure in the history of California’s Dungeness crab fishery until 2015.
That fall, state officials delayed the start of the season by several months off parts of the California coast.
This year, some crabbing areas are being opened this Saturday after a delay. Waters off the state’s northernmost coast are still closed through at least Dec. 16 because of domoic acid.
Oppeneheim said fishermen are being forced to consider costly adaptation strategies as the threat from global warming continues to grow. He said the oil industry is directly responsible for some of those costs.
“We genuinely feel that the industry that caused this economic harm needs to be held to account,” he said.