Drilled S2Ep6: Facing Extinction

Hosted and reported by climate journalist Amy Westervelt, DrilledNews.

Featuring: Ben Platt, a fisherman from Crescent City, California; Lori French, a fisherwoman from Morro Bay, California; Noah Oppenheim, executive director for Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman’s Associations; Larry Collins, founder of the fisherman’s co-op in San Francisco; Vic Sher, the attorney representing the crabbers in their lawsuit against the fossil fuel industry; and Chuck Bonham, California Fish and Wildlife director.

Amy Westervelt: This is part 6 of a six part series, the final episode. If you’re just joining us, go back and listen to the first five episodes in this episode. We’re going to look at where exactly the crabbers are right now and what this year’s season holds. Previously on Drilled.

Ben Platt: We get overextended, too. I’ve done it myself over and over again in my career. You know, I’m doing it right now with the new boat, you know, taking a big financial risk. So with all this stuff going on with whale lawsuits and demo gas and everything else.

Amy Westervelt: This is the story of two industries, one struggling to survive. The other the most powerful in human history. The outcome of their battle may well dictate what path we take in dealing with climate change. I’m Amy WESTERVELT and this is Drilled Season 2, Hot Water.

On a sunny spring day, fishermen are filing into a large room off the back of the Lutheran Church in downtown Sacramento. They look a bit shell shocked. They’ve just come from days of negotiations between the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity to settle the whale entanglements suit. And it’s not looking good for the crabbers. The rumor is spreading that the fishery will be closing early statewide, it’ll close even earlier next year. Ben Platt will later tell me that this is the biggest threat the fishery has faced since he was a kid or maybe even ever. There, hushed, worried conversations happening in every corner of the room that raise in volume as the beer gets flowing. But they’re also happy reunions happening here. This is an annual event held the night before the state’s annual fisheries forum every year. Tomorrow will bring more arguing and negotiating.

But tonight, Lori French is in her element, moving between the crowd and the kitchen in her apron. She’s happy to have changed the menu from fancy food to normal food. She’s particularly proud of a large platter of perfectly fried fish. Ben Platt isn’t there, but I hear he’s driving down for the meeting in the morning. Dick Ogg is in his usual jeans and hoodie coordinating with the Fish and Wildlife staff. He’ll take them out to look for whales soon and start the long road toward shifting the fishery to accommodate changing migration and feeding patterns. Vic Sher, the trade group’s attorney, is there with his wife, Noah Oppenheim. The Fishing Trade Association director is getting pulled into a new conversation every two minutes. It’s the first time I’ve met him in person and he’s younger than I expected with what can only be described as a fisherman’s beard. Crabber Larry Collins is staffing the bar. His pals jokingly call him the king of San Francisco. He’s pragmatic about the whale suit.

Larry Collins: Well, that one year that started all that crap, we had the blob and there wasn’t any crab up above. And so all the crab votes in a state came to fish here because there was some crab here and the whales were very natural. So it was like all these things came together. But now it’s all started and it’s gathered momentum. And, you know, the crabbers are bad guys. And, you know, it’s just it’s you know, it’s too far along. You can’t stop it.

Amy Westervelt: One point of discussion, not at this fish fry, the climate lawsuit, which is still ongoing and which has divided the community a bit, according to Lori.

Lori French: It’s very, very polarizing. And it’s just things are changing.

Amy Westervelt: When I talked to Ben Platt about it, it was clear that the suit had made reluctant activists out of them.

Ben Platt: I think Noah posted something on Facebook about it when they actually dropped the lawsuit. And there was a bunch of comments about how this is stupid, you know, liberal, blah, blah, blah, whatever. But, you know, like that was the main comment I heard was like, well, how can you be a part of this if you’ve got, you know, diesel engine in your boat? That’s the kind of stuff I heard. But I haven’t heard much discussion on the docks or nobody’s asked me about it. I’m reluctant to be part of something that might anger a lot of other my fellow fishermen. But, you know, if I separate all that from the facts of the lawsuit and what they’re trying to achieve, I believe it’s the right thing to do.

Amy Westervelt: It also gets to the heart of the whale entanglements suit, although that suit focuses on the crabbers and their gear. What drove the perfect storm of events during those years when whale entanglements spiked was climate change. Warming waters have fundamentally changed the marine ecosystem, shifting everything from whale migration patterns to algal blooms and squeezing the crab fishery in the middle. The crabbers are still waiting for that federal disaster payment they were awarded in 2015. They’re pissed off about the entanglement sentiment and feel like the ones who bear the brunt of every problem. It’s all gotten to be too much for some folks. And the fleet has been shrinking rapidly in recent years, according to Larry.

Larry Collins: There’s hardly any of us left. You know, last year. Four hundred fifty three boats delivered salmon and 53 boats delivered 50 percent of that. So basically our working salmon fleet, which was 5000 votes in the early 80s when I started its 53 boats.

Amy Westervelt: And Noah echoes this.

Noah Oppenheim: We’re losing more and more fishermen each and every year to either a consolidation or to climate impacts or the inability to operate in a heavily regulated environment.

Amy Westervelt: I hear a lot of people saying, fine, have fun eating your imported tilapia. Pointing out that even if commercial fishing stops entirely on the West Coast, people will still want to eat fish and seafood. The California Water Project, which diverts many of the state’s rivers down to farmland in the Central Valley, is another. Bieler gripe at most tables, West Coast fishermen have the overwhelming sense that they’re always outspent out, lobbied and generally outgunned by environmental groups, by big oil and by almond growers in the Central Valley.

Larry Collins: The waters, the water’s going to build this. It’s going to build fortunes for all the growers, you know. And basically, we’ve made that. California’s made that choice.

Amy Westervelt: Department of Fish and Wildlife director Chuck Bonham says we need a broader, more systemic approach to supporting climate adaptation in coastal towns up and down the West Coast.

Chuck Bonham: There’s a bigger discussion that needs to continue about what does it look like to help our rural coastal communities become more climate adapted. What does it look like to have the right resources and infrastructure for chillers and boats and how to prepare them for what might be the future?

Amy Westervelt: The climate lawsuit feels like a long shot, but also like one of their last hopes. Between domoic acid and whale entanglements, crabbers are staring down the barrel of extinction this year. Whale entanglement settlement has mandated an early closure for most districts of April 1st. If they see another start as late as their 2015 year, combined with the early closures, that would limit the season to four days, effectively shutting it down for the year. If the suit against the oil companies moves forward, it could set a precedent. The industry absolutely doesn’t want to see if they’re held responsible in this case for their contributions to not only the warming oceans, but also their role in decades of inaction on climate. They could be held responsible for multiple other impacts on cities, businesses and people all over the world. So they’re expected to fight it hard. They’re battling about a dozen of these climate liability suits at once. But the rest are all from cities, counties and states, local governments wanting oil companies to help pay for seawalls and other climate adaptation strategies. Any one of them moving forward could spell trouble for the oil industry. Just getting into the discovery phase of a suit could unearth documents and information that would tell both attorneys and the public even more about what oil companies knew and when and about their strategies to suppress and confuse information. Here’s Attorney Vic Sher on why so many of these suits have been filed in the last couple of years.

Vic Sher: What’s compelling about these cases is the strong relationship that scientists can now give us between emissions and climate change related impacts on the firsthand the ability to attribute emissions to particular companies. On the second hand, and this compelling culpability narrative that starts really with the ramp up in emissions that scientists called great acceleration in the 1960s.

Amy Westervelt: So far, despite claiming that these lawsuits are causing them undue financial harm, oil companies have been increasing profits since the Paris Accord was signed. They’ve also been ramping up production in the past two years. The U.S. has become the number one producer of oil globaly. U.S. companies are now also net exporters of energy. So when people talk about climate change as a global problem, requiring a global solution, it’s hard not to look at the number one global supplier of fossil fuels. And while oil companies have accused the plaintiffs bringing these cases of scapegoating them for climate change, in fact, they’re pushing for oil companies to cover only the percentage of damages that can be reasonably linked to them. Oil companies, meanwhile, insist they have zero responsibility and should not be required to do anything at all about climate change.

Ultimately, this case represents a choice that societies will increasingly need to make. Which communities are worth saving? How much power should one industry have over all others? Which activities do we reward as a society and which do we discourage?

For Lori French and Ben Platt, it’s not just about a sense of right and wrong or even about helping the industry recover from all its recent troubles. It comes back to the community itself, this attachment they have to it. This loyalty, the sense of being extended family, the sense of responsibility they have to it, their desire to protect it and to ensure that it outlast them.

Lori French: We care about what we do looking about for the next generation. It’s like, yeah, we are environmentalist’s.

Ben Platt: Those of us that have been making a living at fishing in the industry and around. These coast communities for most of our lives. For all of our lives. Unless you have your head in the sand, you can’t ignore the connection between some environmental causes and what we’re trying to do to make a living. If we want to be managed by the best available science. Then we have to do our part, too. And so if there’s anywhere where we can make improvements, we should be willing to do that. And I think our future really does depend on it.

Amy Westervelt: That’s it for this season. We’ll be bringing you update episodes over the next few months and we’ll be back with a third season in late summer, early fall, so stay tuned for that. Drilled is produced and distributed by Critical Frequency. The show was created and reported by me. Amy WESTERVELT Rekha Murthy is our editorial advisor and additional editing for this series was done by Julia Richy. The series was mixed by Bill Lynn’s Music by Elliot Peltzman. 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 podcast. 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.