Crab Fishers Sue Fossil Fuel Industry Over Climate Change Damage

The lawsuit by the largest West Coast commercial fishing association seeks to hold 30 companies accountable for harming shellfish and livelihoods as the ocean warms.

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Crab fishermen bring in a haul of Dungeness crab in 2006. Warming ocean water has forced fishery closures over the past four seasons that have hurt the industry. Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Crab fishermen bring a haul of Dungeness crab into San Francisco. Warming ocean water has forced fishery closures over the past four seasons that have hurt the industry. Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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Crab fishing on the West Coast has become so threatened by warming oceans that a coalition of commercial fishers has now joined the climate litigation fray with a lawsuit filed Wednesday to hold 30 fossil fuel companies accountable for losses caused by climate change.

The lawsuit, filed in San Francisco County Superior Court by the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, seeks damages on behalf of crab fishers, their businesses and families, and local communities in California and Oregon.

It describes losses caused by the closing of crab fishing waters over the past four years because of algae blooms in the warming Pacific waters, and warns that these closures will keep happening as warming continues.

“These changes threaten both the productivity of commercial fisheries and safety of commercially harvested seafood products,” the lawsuit says. “In so doing, they also threaten those that rely on ocean fisheries and ecosystems for their livelihoods, by rendering it at times impossible to ply their trade.”

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At the heart of the 91-page lawsuit are claims similar to those being used by several California cities that are suing the fossil fuel industry over sea level rise. It accuses some of the world’s largest oil and gas producers, including ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell and BP, of negligence, defective-product liability, creating a nuisance, and failing to warn about the dangers of fossil fuel products that the companies knew would result in warming of the oceans and atmosphere.

But this case is unusual in pitting one industry against another.

Because of the ocean warming brought on by greenhouse gas emissions, the crab fishing industry has been deprived of fishing opportunities, and consequently suffered severe financial hardships, the lawsuit says. “These injuries derive from rising ocean temperatures in the eastern Pacific Ocean generally and periodic extreme marine heat waves—the results of anthropogenic ocean warming caused by the foreseeable and intended use of defendants’ products,” the suit says.

Significant portions of the Dungeness crab fishing region along the Pacific Coast have been closed repeatedly since 2015, including parts along the West Coast this year, according to the lawsuit.

Warming water can generate algae blooms that can cause a buildup in shellfish of domoic acid, a potent neurotoxin that is a health threat to people and an economic threat to the entire crab fishery. Earlier this month, the California Department of Public Health issued a warning not to eat the internal organs of Dungeness crab from the Bodega Bay or Russian River areas because of high levels of domoic acid.

‘It’s Obvious the Oceans Are Getting Warmer’

Although the lawsuit does not specify a damage amount, the federation estimates crab fishing contributes hundreds of millions of dollars to the economy in Oregon and California each year.

“We’re out fishing all the time, and it’s obvious the oceans are getting warmer,” said John Beardon, who fishes for Dungeness crab out of Crescent City, California. “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.”

Disaster relief approved by Congress in 2018 will aid crabbers who were harmed by the poor season three years ago, but it provides only partial relief for fishers like Beardon.

The crab fleet is responsible for thousands of jobs on the boats and thousands more in the local businesses that support the fishery, according to Noah Oppenheim, the Pacific Coast Federation’s executive director.

“We’re taking a stand for the captains and crew, their families, and the business owners that support the fleet,” he 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 flareup’s will be increasingly common, and also help those crabbers who suffer financial losses as a result.”

Latest in a Growing List of Climate Lawsuits

The federation’s lawsuit adds to a growing list of municipalities that have turned to the courts in the last two years seeking to hold fossil fuel companies financially responsible for the threat posed by climate change.

The fossil fuel companies’ legal teams have pushed back hard, and judges have dismissed some of the lawsuits, saying it’s not up to the courts to decide climate policy but rather the job of the legislative and executive branches of the federal government.

“This case will face similar obstacles as the other cases,” said Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. Beyond the lawsuit being filed by a private party and the particular harms cited to the crab fishing industry by warming oceans, the complaint appears to similar to other climate litigation, he said.

The federation, like many of the other litigants, alleges the fossil fuel companies knew for nearly 50 years that the production and use of fossil fuel created greenhouse gases responsible for global warming.  

“Instead of working to reduce the use and combustion of fossil fuel products, lower the rate of greenhouse gas emissions, minimize the damage associated with continued high use and combustion of such products, and ease the transition to a lower carbon economy, defendants concealed the dangers, sought to undermine public support for greenhouse gas regulation, and engaged in massive campaigns to promote the ever-increasing use of their products at ever greater volumes,” the lawsuit says.

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