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Crab Fishermen Sue Energy Companies Over Climate Change

The suit alleges that oil firms are responsible for climate change driven algae blooms, which have delayed and shortened recent crab-harvesting seasons

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A group of West Coast fishermen is battling climate change in a truly American fashion: with a lawsuit.

Alastair Bland at NPR reports that the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations representing crab fishermen in California and Oregon filed suit against 30 companies, most in the oil and gas business, for harming the environment and messing with the their livelihood. It’s the first time food producers have sued energy producers for harming the environment.

By this time of year, crab fishermen should be on the water for Dungeness crab season, one of the most profitable times of the year. Instead, the boats are still docked because a neurotoxin called domoic acid has been found in the crab fishing waters, reports Sammy Roth at the Los Angeles Times. This is not the first time in recent years the crabbing season has been delayed or cut short by the toxin, which is linked to algae blooms associated with global warming. That’s why the crabbers filed suit, alleging that 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,” rather than dealing with climate change from the outset.

Other groups are also tackling climate change via the courts, including a suit by young people against the U.S. government that the Supreme Court recently ruled could move forward. Individual cities too, including New York and San Francisco, have tried to sue energy companies for climate damage, though judges have ruled that municipalities don’t have the standing to bring those cases and that it is federal regulatory issue.

Ann Carlson, co-director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA tells Roth that this case is different because it’s the first time one industry has sued another over climate change. “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 says. “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.”

The plaintiffs’ background in the case is quite new as well, and can’t just be shrugged off as environmental hardliners or liberal activists, David Bookbinder, chief counsel at the Niskanen Center, a D.C.-based libertarian think tank, tells Benjamin Hulac at Energy & Environment News.

“When a group of commercial fishermen, among the most conservative people in America, sue the fossil fuel industry, the defendants can no longer characterize these cases as being brought by ‘radical politicians,’” he says. “And once the first private-sector plaintiffs have filed a case, the defendants are going to have to wonder where it will stop. This is a whole new front.”

Chevron, an oil company named in the suit, argues that the action has no merit, and that they have been following the law and have been encouraged by governments for years to bring the world affordable energy.

Bland at NPR reports that recent reporting by various outlets shows that many energy companies recognized the potential for climate change decades ago and sought to bury the evidence or actively misinform the public about the dangers. The evidence that climate change is linked to human activity, meanwhile, has been strong for decades and has grown even stronger, with a recent IPCC report and a U.S. Climate Assessment painting a grim picture of the climate future.

For the crab fishermen, however, that future is already here. Roth reports that prior to 2015, the crab fishery in California had never been closed due to domoic acid. But in recent years closures have been annual events, and last year the season was delayed by months in some areas due to the contaminant. This year, some crabbing areas will open later this week after a delay, but most of the northern coast of California will stay closed until at least December 16 due to the toxin. It’s believed that going forward these types of closures will be the “new normal” in West Coast crab fishing.

The delays and closures are taking a toll on the fleet. “We just about can’t make a living fishing crabs any more,” fourth generation California crabber John Beardon tells Erin McCormick at The Guardian. His earnings from fishing have dropped by half in the last few years due to the closures he says. “I’d like to see the industry that caused this take responsibility for that.”

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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