Fishermen Suing Oil Companies over Climate Change

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San Francisco, CA—Dungeness Crab Fishermen in California and Oregon are suing a variety of coal, natural gas, and oil companies, alleging that they caused the climate change that is directly, substantially, and negatively affecting the crab industry.

Climate change, the lawsuit says, is increasing average sea temperatures, destabilizing and disturbing marine wildlife populations, and causing harmful algal blooms. This threatens those who rely on ocean ecosystems for their livelihoods, “by rendering it at times impossible to ply their trade.” The lawsuit is intended to hold responsible those who caused and continue to cause changes to the environment that affect the crab fishing industry.

The lawsuit states that the defendants went to great lengths to understand the hazards associated with the extraction, promotion, and sale of their fossil fuel products; that they not only did not disclose the known harms associated with that process, but actively obscured those harms from the public and from regulators; that their internal actions demonstrate their awareness of those harms and their intent to profit from continued use of fossil fuel products; and that they actively prevented the development of alternatives that would have eased the transition to a less fossil-fuel-dependent economy.

The lawsuit states, in no uncertain terms, that “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 impact the climate in catastrophic ways and that only a narrow window existed to take action before the consequences would be irreversible.” Yet, it states, they “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 the public about the reality and consequences of the impacts of their fossil fuel pollution, while profiting off of it.”

The specific consequence over which the Dungeness crab fishing industry is suing is the severe financial hardships caused by rising ocean temperatures, periodic extreme marine heatwaves, and toxic algal blooms caused by said heatwaves that produced “unprecedented” concentrations of the neurotoxin domoic acid, rendering crabs inedible. This caused the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the California Department of Public Health to close portions of the California coast to crab fishing in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 fishing seasons. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Oregon Department of Agriculture, similarly, closed areas of the Oregon coast to commercial crabbing for the same reasons and during the same time periods, as well as during the 2017-18 fishing season.

Noah Oppenheim, the executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, was quoted by NPR as saying, “All these impacts we’re dealing with have nothing to do with abundance of the stock or overfishing. They’re driven by ocean warming and these blooms of toxin-producing algae.”

Oppenheim says that crab fishermen in California have been allocated about $15 million of a $200 million federal disaster relief package approved earlier this year to help fishermen in the fallout of several fishery disasters. However, Oppenheim says, “The financial harm should be covered by those perpetrating it,” not by the taxpayers.

NPR quotes Sean Comey, the senior advisor of policy, government, and public affairs at Chevron Corporation, as saying that the lawsuit is “without merit and counterproductive to real solutions to climate change.” He also says that fossil fuel production “has been lawful and encouraged by governments” and is “vital to the global economy.”

The plaintiff is the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, the largest trade association of commercial fishermen on the West Coast.

The defendants are Chevron entities, Exxon entities, BP entities, Shell entities, Citgo Petroleum Corporation, ConocoPhillips entities, Total entities, Eni entities, Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, Occidental entities, Repsol S.A., Marathon Entities, Hess Corporation, Devon Energy entities, Encana Corporation, and Apache Corporation.

The suit was filed in the Superior Court of California for San Francisco County.

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