Commercial fisheries have suffered huge financial losses because of warming oceans, a new lawsuit saysWarming oceans have decimated the Dungeness crab industry on the West Coast, and a group of commercial fishermen want the fossil fuel industry held accountable. Photo credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

By Dana Drugmand

A group of commercial fishermen are joining the legal fight against the fossil fuel industry for its role in climate change.

A new lawsuit by the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA), the West Coast’s largest commercial fishing association, was filed on Wednesday in California state court. The association said the suit is a response to four consecutive years of crab fishery being forced to close because of algae blooms, which are caused by warming oceans. Crabbers in California and Oregon have suffered significant economic losses and are seeking to hold fossil fuel companies accountable, arguing that the companies have long known that fossil fuel combustion would lead to warming of the oceans and atmosphere.

“We’re taking a stand for the captains and crew, their families, and the business owners that support the fleet,” said Noah Oppenheim, PCFFA’s executive director. “The fossil fuel companies named in our lawsuit knowingly caused harm, and they need to be held accountable.”

The complaint names 30 fossil fuel companies, including heavyweights such as Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Royal Dutch Shell, and brings state law claims of nuisance, negligence, product liability and failure to warn. The plaintiffs filed the action in California State Superior Court in San Francisco and are represented by Sher Edling, the same firm that is steering several climate liability suits filed by communities in California and across the country.

Those suits pit local governments against industry giants seeking compensation for the damages caused by climate change. The latest lawsuit is the first filed by an economic entity. The Dungeness crab industry contributes hundreds of millions of dollars to the economy in Oregon and California each year, the association said, and employs thousands of people both on the boats and in local communities.  

“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,” the complaint said.

“I think the evidence that the crab industry is suffering serious economic harm as the result of rising ocean temperatures caused by greenhouse gas emissions is really powerful and may be especially compelling to more conservative judges,” said Ann Carlson, environmental law professor and co-director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA School of Law. “The new lawsuit puts a human face on the consequences of climate change and makes those consequences less abstract than losses a government has or will experience. That isn’t to say that harms to municipalities and states aren’t real, with real human victims. But the new lawsuit personalizes the harms in a way that may be very persuasive to a court.”  

Commercial fisheries are not new to fighting oil companies in court. Following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which caused the industry between $94.7 million to $1.6 billion, a suit against BP resulted in a multi-billion dollar settlement.

The harm this time stems not from spilled oil but from warming ocean waters, which scientists have tied to the algae blooms. The overgrowth of algae causes the buildup of a harmful neurotoxin called domoic acid, which poisons shellfish like the Dungeness crab and threatens the West Coast fishing economy.

The California Department of Public Health issued a warning earlier this month against eating the internal organs of Dungeness crab caught in Bodega Bay and the Russian River because of high levels of domoic acid.

The PCFFA argues that the fossil fuel companies have known for decades about the risk of fossil fuel burning on ocean warming and yet engaged in a sophisticated campaign to downplay that risk while profiting from a harmful product.

The fishermen’s association says fossil fuel producers should now pay for the consequences.  

“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 hard working fishermen,” Oppenheim said in a said in a statement.

According to one climate law expert, this latest lawsuit against the fossil fuel industry is likely to be followed by others suffering economic losses because of climate change.

“The dominoes keep falling. The collapse of Dungeness crab fishery along the California and Oregon coasts is yet another casualty of global warming caused by carbon pollution from oil companies that knew of the danger and acted with callous indifference to the consequences of their actions,” said Vermont Law School professor Patrick Parenteau.

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