It's been a big year so far for food- and agriculture-related lawsuits. There was the landmark Round-Up case, where a judge ruled in favor of a man with terminal cancer stemming from years of working with the herbicide, which opened Round-Up’s parent company, ag-tech giant Monsanto, to thousands of lawsuits alleging that the chemical caused cancer. There was the case in North Carolina where a jury ruled in favor of the neighboring community of a Smithfield Foods hog farm, ordering the pork producer to pay $473.5 million in damages due to the “nuisance” of giant hog waste lagoons. And on Wednesday of this week, another case was opened with similar industry-wide implications in its charges: California crab fishermen are suing Big Oil for climate change.
The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations filed the suit in a California state superior court against 30 defendants, all major petroleum companies who, the association charges, “knowingly caused harm” with their business. Rising global and oceanic temperatures caused by greenhouse gas emissions has had serious negative impacts on California’s fishing industry, particularly Dungeness crab fishing. As The Guardian reported, fishing seasons have shortened dramatically and algae blooms off the west coast of North America have built up a neurotoxin in whatever small catch of crabs fishermen are able to bring in, making them potentially poisonous and un-sellable.
“Defendants have known for nearly 50 years that greenhouse gas pollution from their fossil fuel products has a significant impact on Earth’s climate,” the suit reads. “Including a warming of the oceans.” It then goes on to claim that the oil companies—like ExxonMobil, Chevron, and BP—hid those dangers, undermined public support for efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, and encouraged even more use of their products.
This is not the first time that a lawsuit has tried to put Big Oil on the stand to be held accountable for the damages caused by climate change, but it is the first time a the first time an industry has tried to do so, citing commercial damages.. (A judge threw out the case brought by the city of New York against a handful of oil companies in July, and the state of Rhode Island filed a suit the same month.) The San Francisco Chronicle reported that in a single season, the CA Dungeness crab industry lost $110 million when major fishing areas had to be closed down after they tested positive for the neurotoxin domoic acid. Some fishermen had to sell their boats entirely.
The PCFFA’s case stands to set a precedent in climate change litigation, which essentially will answer the question of who is responsible for footing the bill when industries and individuals start to see the second and third order effects of climate change. In 2010, BP was made to pay $1 billion in damages to Gulf Coast shrimpers after their disastrous oil spill, but that’s a first order effect. A lawyer for Exxon Mobil Corp. rebuffed the premise of these new allegations entirely, telling the SF Chronicle “Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a global issue and requires global participation and actions. Lawsuits like this — filed by trial attorneys against an industry that provides products we all rely upon to power the economy and enable our domestic life — simply do not do that.”
The crab fishermen, in their suit, have demanded a jury trial, which a judge has yet to order to begin, but if and when it does, environmentalists will surely be watching with bated breath. But in the mean time, now we know why Dungeness crab has gotten—and is likely to continue to get—so expensive over the last few years.