Trade group takes fuel companies to court over Dungeness crab closures

A trade group representing commercial fishermen on the West Coast of the United States has filed a lawsuit in a California court claiming petroleum companies have significantly harmed the Dungeness crab fishery in that state and neighboring Oregon.

The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association filed the suit in a San Francisco, California court last week against 30 fossil fuel makers. They claim actions by the defendants – which include Chevron, ExxonMobil, Dutch Shell, Citgo, ConocoPhillips and Marathon Oil – have led to algae blooms in the Pacific Ocean. Those blooms lead to a buildup of domoic acid, a harmful neurotoxin, in the crabs.

The lawsuit states fuel companies have known for a half-century that their products have led to climate change, with the waters for the crab fishery growing warmer. As a result, the Dungeness crab fishery has suffered through repeated closures since 2015.

“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 flare-ups will be increasingly common, and also help those crabbers who suffer financial losses as a result,” said Noah Oppenheim, the association’s executive director, in a news release

Just days before the lawsuit, California Department of Fish and Wildlife officials announced that the Dungeness crab fishery, originally scheduled to open on 15 November, would be suspended indefinitely along the Sonoma County coast, located roughly 70 miles north of San Francisco. 

Crab fishing south of the county began on schedule. Crab fishing north of Sonoma County is not scheduled to start until next month. However, in the same statement, state officials did not rule out a delay for that portion of the fishery. 

“This delay shall remain in effect until the Director of the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, in consultation with the State Public Health Officer at the California Department of Public Health, determines that domoic acid no longer poses a significant risk to public health and recommends opening the fishery in this region,” the release stated.

Earlier this year, Congress approved a disaster relief package for the Dungeness crab fishery, but the association said the funding will not cover all the losses tied to the closures. As a result, the PCFFA claims thousands of jobs on fishing boats, at processing facilities and other places dependent on the industry in California and Oregon remain at risk.

A representative with the National Association of Manufacturers told Scientific American the state court should dismiss the case, filed on behalf of the association by the law firm Sher Edling LLP. 

“Over the past year and a half, we have seen this very law firm file this same litigation on behalf of several municipalities and one state, and their copy-and-paste legal strategy has yet to succeed,” NAM spokeswoman Lindsey de la Torre said.


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