Drilled S2Ep2: A Late Season and a Shaky Future

Hosted and reported by climate journalist Amy Westervelt, DrilledNews.

Featuring: Ken Caldeira, atmospheric scientist at Carnegie Institution for Science’s Department of Global Ecology the fisherman’s co-op in San Francisco; Dick Og, a boat captain in Bodega Bay, California; and Tanya Beardon, a fisherman’s wife from Crescent City, California.

Amy Westervelt: This is part two of a six part series, if you missed episode one, go back and listen to it. It’ll give you a good sense of who these people are and what they’re up against. In today’s episode, we’re going to look at 2015 and what happened that year to change these people’s lives and their industry forever.

Previously on Drilled.

Ben Platt: So what’s happening now lately? Three out of the last four years. We’re asking these guys sit around and either make no money or make hardly any money doing part time jobs. But they have to be on COGS as we never know when the season is going to start. So it’s really hard for them to work during these closures. And our boats are sitting idle for three, four or five months at a time now.

Amy Westervelt: When we left off, It was 2015 and a giant patch of warm water just appeared off the Pacific Coast. It was huge and weird. And scientists and locals were calling it, quite ominously, the blob.

The Blob movie: There’s no stopping the massive spreads from town to town.

Amy Westervelt: Not quite as melodramatic as the 1958 movie by the same name, but pretty scary. All the same scientists, including several who actually worked for Big Oil, had been predicting since the 1960s that warming oceans could shift the marine food web, redistributing fish and plankton in ways that would cause various fisheries to wither and eventually crash. In 1968, the American Petroleum Institute commissioned a study on the impacts of climate change from Stanford University. In it, scientists warned that, quote, changes in ocean temperature would change the distribution of fish.

This is the story of two industries, one fighting for its survival. The other the most powerful in human history. The outcome of their battle could very well determine how and whether we act on climate change. I’m Amy WESTERVELT. This is Drilled Season 2, Hot Water.

Early in scientists understanding of climate change, there was an assumption that oceans could act as large carbon sinks as though it would be a good thing if the oceans just absorbed the bulk of human CO2 emissions. It turns out they do, and it’s not a good thing at all. Over 90 percent of the warming generated by greenhouse gases is absorbed by the oceans. That’s why we’re seeing the impacts of climate change there. First, here’s Stanford scientist Ken Caldera to explain.

Ken Caldeira: Department of Energy said, oh, well, we’re not going to do anymore oceans research. The only thing we’re going to look at with regard to oceans is really the possibility of ocean carbon sequestration, of storing carbon in the ocean. So we submitted a paper to Nature magazine, which is the leading Science magazine. We pointed out for the first time that what we would expect would happen under a business as usual scenario is over the next decades was largely geologically unprecedented, except perhaps in times of major mass extinctions, but sort of in the know ordinary stretches of geologic time. There’s been no time when the ocean has changed so much so rapidly.

Amy Westervelt: The blob created a spike in algae that led to an increase in a dangerous neurotoxin, domoic acid in crab. The toxic outbreak delayed the start of the 2015 crab season. It was the first time something like that had happened. And crabbers like Ben Platt were on edge.

Ben Platt: The summer before that, I decided not salmon troll. And I had spent the whole summer basically trying to make this better crab and also for summertime fisheries. I got it. The official. I did a bunch of major woodwork on the boat. I spent the whole summer doing that and a bunch of money. And then right after that, we had the domoic acid closure. You know, we do our gear work in the fall. So I had a crew that was a new crew that year.

Amy Westervelt: Not everyone had taken the summer off like Ben to work on their boats. But it is typical for there to be a month or so of gear prep before the season starts. And that work is usually unpaid for deckhands. They’re compensated later with a percentage of the haul whenever they’re out fishing. Deckhands in California make between 40,000 and $70,000 a year, depending on whether the season is good or not. Captains can make around 200,000 a year more and are really great here. They all save up for lulls between seasons or months off to deal with boat repairs, but they also all work independently. There is no health insurance, no sick days, no paid time off. The years leading up to that 2015 season had been especially great for these fishermen. Plenty of crab, good prices. The old timers knew not to trust it, but the younger guys? Not so much.

Amy Westervelt: Just taking a little break here to tell you about a show that I have in regular rotation, Latina to Latina profiles a different woman each week touching on everything from their personal histories to their professional triumphs. You might recognize host an ace interviewer Alicia Menendez from PBS as Amanpour and Company. She does a great job on this show. To listeners of Drilled Show particularly, check out the recent interview with climate scientist turned environmental justice advocate Nicole Hernandez. She’s really fascinating on everything from how her background has informed her work and how the Latino community in particular understands and is responding to climate change. Hernandez has been instrumental in getting people to understand what happens during, quote unquote, sunny days floods in Miami. And she’s just really, really interesting to listen to. So check that out. Rest. The episodes are great, too. You can subscribe on Apple, Spotify, Radio Public, really wherever you get your podcasts. And it’s great to check it out.

I also want to recommend a Web site that does a great job of keeping track of all the various climate lawsuits happening right now.

Climate liability news sent me to the courtroom climate science tutorial where I first got the idea to do Drilled There, reporters are really on top of this stuff in a way that no one else. So it’s a great One-Stop shop if you want to know what’s happening with these cases.

Amy Westervelt: OK, back to the show. A couple of years before that fateful 2015 season, permitting for the fishery had changed and a new lower cost permit had been introduced. It enabled younger fishermen to strike out on their own. And after two good seasons in a row, several had just decided to do exactly that.

Ben Platt: You know, you could get a low tier permit in a smaller boat, maybe not for a ton of money. And starfish, it was a really good thing in some ways. We’ve been complaining about the graying of the fleet for a long time. So I was really encouraged. There is a lot of younger guys getting to it. But a lot of people weren’t as able or willing to go through that rough patch. They had cut their teeth for a few years when it was pretty easy. You could fish out of Hapened Bay or even Santacruz or Moss Landing and make living. And if you were a deckhand, you could think about buying your own boat. If you were had just bought a small boat, a small permit, you doing pretty well. And, you know, then all of a sudden those of us had been in the fishery for a lot longer. It was just reality kicking in. And we were even telling them, hey, this doesn’t ever last forever. So, you know, save your money. But it’s hard even for us to do that. We get overextended, too. I’ve done it myself over and over again in my career.

Amy Westervelt: When we met for dinner in Morro Bay, Lori French also talked about what happened to the younger guys that season. Lori’s family, like Ben, has been fishing these waters for decades.

Lori French: They put all their money into going out on their own, which is that’s what you do. So they had no reserves.

Amy Westervelt: When the season delay was first announced, fishermen were concerned, but they figured it would just be a week or maybe two. They’d still be able to make the San Francisco Thanksgiving market when fishermen typically sell thousands of crab and they’d get holiday sales to make up for lost time, too.

But the blob remained, and its spread. By December 2014, it reached all the way from Alaska to Mexico, and it was killing marine mammals in record numbers. Dead whales were washing up on shore, seals were starving, and scientists were alarmed. The combination of warming oceans, melting arctic ice and shifting wind patterns had disrupted the ocean’s upwelling. That’s a natural mixing process that brings cold water and nutrients up from the ocean’s depths and pushes warm water from the surface down below. Without it, algae was blooming like crazy and fish and marine mammals were running out of food. All that algae meant domoic acid was persisting, too, and the crab fishery, already vulnerable to nature’s whims, was getting its first taste of the volatility that climate change will bring.

Lori French: It was pretty impressive. This was a place like these. You know what? This is getting serious. You know, we’re thinking, oh, we’ll be over by December first.

Amy Westervelt: Deckhands who really only get paid when they’re out fishing were hit particularly hard.

Ben Platt: So then my crew had to go get part time jobs or whatever. And, you know, those kind of jobs never pay like crabbing does if it’s a good year.

Amy Westervelt: Lori’s son, Lauren, who had started fishing just a few years before, had to move home with his parents because he couldn’t afford not to. She was hearing story after story of people losing everything, cars, homes, boats. So she did what every American does these days when people they love are in dire financial straits. She started a go fund me and she raised nearly $17,000 and divided up into $100 grocery gift cards that she sent out to anyone who got in touch. Almost immediately, there was a wait list. Food banks opened up in most coastal towns.

Larry Collins: The old guys, you know, we’ve we’ve been around. And if you’re a commercial fisherman, you know, bad times are always common. So you save your money and you’re really Kert.

Amy Westervelt: That’s Larry Collins. People call him Duck. Duck started the fisherman’s co-op in San Francisco several years ago and runs the dock there. A younger man captains his boat for now, but Duck and his wife fished it for decades. He’s a big guy in his 60s. He speaks his mind about most things. Says he’s been working since he was five years old. One of the many terrible impacts of that season was that it dashed the crabbers hopes of reinvigorating an aging fleet.

Larry Collins: I think we lost a contingent out of the fleet of young guys, which we really need to come along

Amy Westervelt: As the closure wore on, it was clear that this wasn’t going to be a momentary or fleeting loss.

Tanya Beardon: It was just awful. I mean, we. Couldn’t pay the bills. It was just a nightmare. We almost lost everything because we couldn’t pay anything.

Lori French: I mean, we took a pretty hard hit and the money that will never make up again, guys with families. The deckhands had no backup.

Dick Og: It’s kind of an example of the worst case scenario that you could ask for,

Amy Westervelt: But also they realized would be silly to try to rush the opening.

Lori French: We didn’t want to make anybody sick because if a tiny product is getting out there, I mean, that needs our market forever. You know, you lose your customer base. We’re not stupid.

Amy Westervelt: Finally, on March 26, long after Thanksgiving and Christmas and more than four months after the usual start date, the season opened.

Larry Collins: Missed all of our markets, all the holiday markets. I mean, that’s where we make our money on. Nobody wants to buy crabs. Tax day. And then by then, there was only the production wasn’t very good. If you wait into the years and the crabs crawl away. They don’t bite as good as they do in November. So it’s just bad.

Amy Westervelt: [00:12:50] Still, crabbers were happy that the closure was over and they figured 2015 was just a one off. But their troubles were just beginning.

Next time on Drilled, the crabbers find themselves embroiled in two lawsuits at once,

Dick Og: But with warm water and no krill and high concentrations of crab here it was the perfect storm.

Noah Oppenheim: Fossil fuel companies knew about the warming of the climate. They knew the effect it would have on the ocean. And they had all this information a long time ago and they didn’t share it with the public because it would have affected their bottom line.

Lori French: It goes against my look poorly in the water outside. You’re doing something that could most harm, but you’re still putting with the money. That’s not how the game is played.

Amy Westervelt: We’ll be back with another episode in this series next week. But if you can’t wait until then or you just want to support independent clÉment reporting, consider becoming a Drilled member. Just go to Drilled dot supporting cast dot ffm to sign up. Let’s Drilled dot supporting cast as you ppo r t i n g c h s t dot f m f like Frank. M like Mary to sign up. Thanks for your support. We really, really appreciate it.

Drilled is produced and distributed by Critical Frequency. The show was created and reported by me, Amy WESTERVELT Rekha Murthy is our editorial advisor. An additional editing for this series was done by Julia Richy. The series was mixed by Bill Lance. Our Season 2 theme song was composed by Elliot Peltzman. Additional music was contributed by Beamon and David Whited. Season 2 Cover Art was drawn by Angela Shay. Drilled is supported in part by a generous grant from the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development. You can listen and subscribe to Drilled on Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. If you like the show, don’t forget to give us a five star rating. It helps us buy more listeners and combat pesky climate deniers. Visit our website Drilled podcast dot com for behind the scenes photos and additional information about this series. You can also drop us a tip or story idea there, and sign up for our newsletter. Or you can find me on Twitter. I’m at Amy WESTERVELT. Thanks for listening.