Crabbers check on a crab pot immersed in the waters of Bodega Bay, California. Photograph: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images
But crab fishermen want fossil fuel companies to pay damages and help finance efforts to adapt and sustain the crab fishing industry into the future.
At the moment, the suit remains in limbo as the plaintiffs and defendants argue over whether it should be heard by state or federal court.
In the meantime, crabbers are grappling with new restrictions following another lawsuit centered around the entanglement of whales and leatherback sea turtles in crab-fishing gear. After the number of entanglements spiked from 41 in 2014 to 71 in 2016, the highest number since the government began tracking the problem in 1982, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), an environmental advocacy group, sued the state fish and wildlife agency for failing to protect endangered species.
In a settlement, crab fishermen agreed to end their season three months early, until the state comes up with a long-term conservation plan to minimize the risk of whale entanglements and get the funding and federal approval needed to put such a plan in place.
For now, even a single entanglement could prompt more restrictions or closures, so crabbers are looking to be extra careful. As a start, many have been tightening the lines connecting their buoys and traps, to make it easier for whales to swim around the contraptions without getting tangled.
Eventually, I hope that the industry moves towards ropeless fishing, said Kristen Monsell with the Center for Biological Diversity. California likes to hold itself up as an environmental leader and I think this provides an opportunity to live up to that image.
If fishermen can afford the ropeless equipment, and make it work, a provision of the whale entanglement settlement will allow them to cast traps in parts of the ocean that are otherwise closed to crab fishing, starting in 2021.
But thats a big if. Crabbers who have tested out ropeless gear say theyre far from practical at the moment. In 2017, Dick Ogg, a Bodega Bay crab fishermen, tested two prototypes designed so crabbers can reel in traps with an acoustic signal. One of them never surfaced, and it took Ogg about 10 minutes to find the other. Im not saying that this ropeless gear cant someday work, Ogg said. But right now, the risk that well lose our gear is too high.
Whereas regular traps and buoys cost between $250, the new systems currently cost several thousand dollars. Most crab fishermen couldnt afford to purchase them, let alone lose them, Ogg said. And moreover, lost gear can cause further harm to wildlife trapping sea life and leaching microplastics into the ocean.
As much as Id like to say, Yeah, this is the answer right here, its extremely difficult to find any one tool thatll solve the whole problem, said Ogg.
At 66, he said he was not sure if he would live to see the industry survive this latest wave of challenges.
The delays this year mean that California families wont be able to buy local Thanksgiving crab at markets and grocery stores. Recreational crabbing is still allowed, so motivated citizens can go out and catch their own, though state officials have warned people against eating the internal organs of Dungeness crab caught in certain areas due to concerns over domoic acid.
Though recreational crab boats tend to cast out fewer traps, they use the same equipment as commercial operations so whale entanglements are still a risk.
It all just kind of sucks, said Obert. But I hope that by seeing that fishermen are willing to give up Thanksgiving sales, to give up their own money at the most profitable time of year for us, in order to do the right thing and protect the whales, people will know that were really committed to doing right by the environment.
The 33-year-old captain, who has been working on a crab boat since he was 13, said he was not willing to give up on crabbing all together. I guess you could say I have more of a millennial outlook, he said. Im looking to find ways to change and adapt the industry.
Obert has been taking courses on fishery management and climate change. This is a dangerous job, its a stressful job, he said. But for me, the ocean is still my calm place. And this is my passion.