West Coast commercial crab fishermen sue fossil fuel industry

Noah Oppenheim, Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations (PCFFA), speaks at a press conference against a water grab by the Trump administration in January. Photo by Dan Bacher. |  

By Dan Bacher |November 15, 2018 |  

On the day before the commercial crab season was scheduled to begin on most of the California coast, the West Coast’s largest commercial fishing association filed a landmark lawsuit against Big Oil.

The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations (PCFFA) today filed the litigation to hold 30 fossil fuel companies, including Chevron, Exxon-Mobil, BP other oil industry giants, accountable for losses caused by four straight years of fishery closures that have harmed crabbers, their businesses, their families, and local communities in California and Oregon.
The fishermen filed the suit in California State Superior Court in San Francisco, asserting state law claims, including “negligence, defective product liability, nuisance, and failure to warn about the dangers associated with products the fossil fuel companies knew would cause, among other things, warming of the oceans and atmosphere.”
“Americans are well aware of the damaging and sometimes catastrophic effects of climate change,” said Noah Oppenheim, PCFFA's executive director, in a press release. “For crab fishermen, that means significant portions of the Dungeness crab fishery have been closed repeatedly since 2015, including parts along the coast this year.”
Oppenheim said the Dungeness crab fishery contributes hundreds of millions of dollars to the economy in Oregon and California each year. But he noted that harmful algal blooms can cause a buildup in crabs of domoic acid, a potent neurotoxin that is a health threat to people and an economic threat to the entire crab fishery.
“The algal blooms and domoic acid flare-up's are linked to a warming of the Pacific Ocean knowingly caused by the fossil fuel industry,” said Oppenheim.
"We're taking a stand for the captains and crew, their families, and the business owners that support the fleet," Oppenheim said.  "The fossil fuel companies named in our lawsuit knowingly caused harm, and they need to be held accountable.  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 flare-up's will be increasingly common, and also help those crabbers who suffer financial losses as a result."
The complaint documents how the oil industry has known for decades that fossil fuel production and use has led to greenhouse gas pollution that causes global warming, but has concealed and denied this information:
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. They have known for decades that those impacts could be catastrophic and that only a narrow window existed to take action before the consequences would be irreversible. They have nevertheless 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 in the minds of customers, consumers, regulators, the media, journalists, teachers, and the public about the reality and consequences of the impacts of their fossil fuel pollution.
The lawsuit also documents the loss to the commercial crab fishing industry they say is caused by climate change:
The complaint [PCFFA] represents commercial Dungeness crab harvesters and onshore crab processors and wholesalers that have suffered, and continue to suffer, substantial economic losses due to those lost fishing opportunities. The severe curtailment of the crab fishery, which is among the most productive, lucrative, and reliable fisheries on the west coast, had damaging ripple effects throughout California’s and Oregon’s fishing families and communities, creating severe hardships that many fishermen and fishing businesses, including Plaintiff’s members, have struggled to overcome.  
John Beardon, who fishes for Dungeness crab out of Crescent City, California,” said, “We’re out fishing all the time, and it’s obvious the oceans are getting warmer. That’s bad for crabs and other fish, and it’s bad for those of us who make a living on the water.”
“The last three years have been really hard. Our community came together and held a fish fry to help our crew members. But fish fries and disaster relief are no solution to these closures we’re now seeing year-after-year-after year,” Beardon emphasized.
A disaster relief appropriations package passed by Congress in 2018 will aid impacted crabbers, but it provides only partial relief, leaving a substantial recovery gap, according to Oppenheim.  
Oppenheim said there are nearly 1,000 Dungeness crab permits in California and Oregon — and the crab fleet is responsible for “thousands of jobs on the boats and thousands more in the local businesses that support the fishery.”
“The families and businesses in our coastal communities should not have to bear the costs when fisheries are closed because of domoic acid flare-up's linked to fossil fuel companies and global warming,” said Oppenheim. “In addition to seeking compensation from fossil fuel companies for losses suffered by crabbers and others from those closures, we’re demanding these companies pay for additional measures that will help mitigate future impacts. Those costs should not fall on the shoulders of hardworking fishermen, first receivers, and their families when the only reason they’re needed is because of what the fossil fuel companies have done.”
Some measures that Oppenheim said might be available after further testing and development include:
  • holding crabs in depuration tanks until they rid themselves of domoic acid; and
  • rapid testing kits that would allow crabs to be tested individually, instantly, and affordably, enabling the marketing of clean crabs even during a domoic acid flare-up. 
Not all areas of the California coast will open to commercial crabbing  on November 15 this year, underlining the continuing impact that warming of the oceans and atmosphere have on crab fishermen.
California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) Director Charlton H. Bonham has delayed the opening of the commercial Dungeness crab fishery from Bodega Head, Sonoma County north to the Sonoma/Mendocino county line, due to elevated levels of domoic acid. The commercial Dungeness crab fishery south of this area will open as scheduled on Thursday, Nov. 15.
State health agencies determined that Dungeness crab in state waters from Bodega Head, Sonoma County north to the Sonoma/Mendocino county line have elevated levels of domoic acid — linked to fossil fuel companies and global warming, according to the PCFFA lawsuit — and recommended a delay of the commercial fishery in this area.
“Commercial take and/or possession of Dungeness crab is prohibited in these waters. North of the Sonoma/Mendocino county line, the Dungeness crab commercial season is not scheduled to open until Dec. 1. That opener is also subject to delay pending test results both for domoic acid as well as crab quality,” according to the CDFW. 
It is significant that the suit was filed in a state that is one of the country’s leading oil producers, where both offshore and onshore drilling by many of the same oil oil corporations named in the suit have expanded in recent years. While state officials and the mainstream media continually portray California as the nation's "green leader," the reality is much different.
In fact, Big Oil is the most powerful corporate lobby in California and the West - and the Western States Petroleum Association is the most powerful corporate lobbying organization. The inordinate influence of the oil and gas industry over California regulators is highlighted by the Brown administration’s approval of over 21,000 new oil and gas well permits, including 238 new offshore wells, over the past 7 years.
”You may not realize it when thinking about politics in environmentally conscious and ‘green’ California, but an 18-month-long NBC Bay Area and Maplight investigation found the oil and gas industry paid $182 million to California politicians, PACs and political causes between 2001 and June 30, 2018,” reported NBC Bay Area on October 25.  “For the past year and a half, the Investigative Unit worked with Maplight, a nonpartisan group based in Berkeley that tracks campaign contributions to uncover just how much money and influence the oil and gas industry wields in Sacramento.”
To view the full report, go to: www.nbcbayarea.com/...
WSPA and Big Oil wield their power in 6 major ways: through (1) lobbying; (2) campaign spending; (3) serving on and putting shills on regulatory panels; (4) creating Astroturf groups: (5) working in collaboration with media; and (6) contributing to non profit organizations. For more information, go to: https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2018/9/3/1792899/-A-Must-Read-Before-Going-to-the-Climate-March-on-September-8-Big-Oil-and-WSPA-s-Grip-on-California
The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA)is the largest and most active trade association of commercial fishermen on the West Coast. PCFFA has led the fishing industry in protecting the rights of fishermen and fishing communities since 1976. We constantly fight for the long-term survival of commercial fishing as a productive livelihood and way of life.

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