Fishermen sue Big Oil over closures

Daniel Mintz
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – West Coast fishermen are fighting the oil and gas industry, accusing 30 fossil fuel companies of advancing climate change and causing a series of Dungeness crab closures.

Filed on Nov. 14 in California State Superior Court in San Francisco by the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, the lawsuit takes the oil giants to task for promoting their financial interests at the expense of California and Oregon crab fishermen.

Among the defendants are the world’s most powerful oil companies.

They’re accused of “deliberately and unnecessarily” deceiving consumers about “the role of fossil fuel products in causing ocean warming and consequent harmful algal blooms and domoic (acid) outbreaks.”

The suit essentially accuses the companies of a conspiracy to market their products despite being well aware of the climate change danger.

The oil and gas industry is described as being “at the forefront of carbon dioxide research for much of the latter half of the 20th century.”

But instead of acting on it by supporting emissions-reducing technology and alternative energy, the oil companies have “funded dozens of think tanks, front groups, and dark money foundations pushing climate change denial” and “mounted a campaign against regulation of their business practices in order to continue placing their fossil fuel products into the stream of commerce, despite their own knowledge and the growing national and international scientific consensus about the hazards of doing so,” according to the lawsuit.

The association is represented by the San Francisco-based Sher Edling LLP law firm, which is also representing several communities that have also filed climate change-related suits against the oil industry.

The new normal

Toxic algae blooms rocked the West Coast fishing industry during the 2015 to 2016 Dungeness season, which was drastically delayed and declared a disaster in California.

Domoic acid issues also complicated last year’s season but the impacts weren’t as great because they coincided with delays related to meat quality.

There is concern about this year’s crabbing. As the lawsuit notes, the California area from Bodega Head to the Sonoma/Mendocino County line is closed due to domoic acid and crabs collected in the Trinidad and Crescent City areas have unsafe levels of the toxin.

Christy Juhasz, a California Department of Fish and Wildlife environmental scientist,

was asked if domoic acid is the new normal for the Dungeness fishery.

“Yeah, we’re in it,” she responded. “From the 2015 to 2016 season onward, we’ve continued to see at least one or two locations showing domoic acid prior to the scheduled Dungeness season start date and it seems like this will remain from now on – it is part of the management of this fishery moving forward.”

‘Here to stay’

Algal blooms are associated with warm water conditions and in response to a question, Juhasz discussed the influence of climate change.

“That’s something people often ask me as a manager – ‘How are you incorporating climate change into your management strategy’ – I guess there’s no denying that we are seeing changes to the environment and definitely, this is reflective of that, we’re seeing oceanographic conditions that are suggesting that yes, domoic acid is here to stay.”

Juhasz added that “in the past, there was seasonality to algal blooms and that’s no longer the case, that’s broken down – you can see algal blooms anytime of the year, it’s not just something that happens when upwelling is present.”

Another condition affecting the North Coast’s commercial Dungeness season is meat quality. The season doesn’t begin until crabs show a 25 percent meat to shell ratio and Juhasz said meat percentages are low at this point.

The North Coast’s season is scheduled to begin on Dec. 1 but it will be delayed until at least Dec. 16 as meat quality testing continues.

That suggests a strong crab population is competing for food. Last year’s season from the Fort Bragg area to the Oregon border was delayed until Jan. 15 and the region accounted for $42 million of the state’s $64 million total landings value.

The state’s central area opened as scheduled on Nov. 15 except for the area that’s closed due to domoic acid.




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