Cape Elizabeth’s Kettle Cove was cold that February week in 2003 when high school junior Noah Oppenheim learned to scuba dive: 30 degrees, frigid enough that the salt in the water was the only thing keeping it from turning solid.

He and his classmates, students in a Waynflete School marine biology course, persevered, got certified, and a few weeks later were diving through limestone caves in the milder, clearer waters of Bermuda. “Once I went underwater I was kind of addicted,” he recalled. “It just drove my interest from that point on.”

Waynflete graduate Noah Oppenheim works as a salmon fisherman in Adak, Alaska, in this September 2015 photo. Photo by Doug Rasher

In the 15 years since, Oppenheim has studied sharks in the Galapagos Islands, worked on salmon fishing vessels and factory freezer trawlers off the coast of Alaska, studied lobster cannibalism off the coast of Maine, and helped shape federal marine policy as a congressional fellow.

Now the 31-year-old Falmouth native is making national news by helping West Coast crab fishermen sue 30 of the world’s major companies, seeking compensation for the ruination of their fishery. The oil companies, they allege, have for decades knowingly disrupted Earth’s climate while actively deceiving the public about the problem and their role in it.

“We felt we needed to hold the perpetrators to account,” says Oppenheim, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, the plaintiff in the lawsuit now before a California Superior Court judge. “Struggling fishermen and taxpayers shouldn’t be footing the bill when the companies that are causing this are having record profits.”

The suit, filed Nov. 14 in San Francisco, alleges major oil companies are culpable for recent closures of California and Oregon Dungeness crab fisheries to prevent consumers from being exposed to toxic shellfish poisoning. Warming coastal waters have fostered blooms of a microscopic marine alga, Pseudo-nitzschia australis, which creates toxic levels of domoic acid in the crabs. A spokesman for Chevron, one of the companies named in the suit, told the Los Angeles Times that the action sought to penalize the lawful production of energy and was “without merit and counterproductive to real solutions to climate change.”

‘WILLING TO TAKE ON BIG CHALLENGES’

Lori French of the Morro Bay Commercial Fishermen’s Association says the closures have been devastating to crab-fishing families, with fishing communities having to organize food pantries to help them. She hopes the suit can bring some relief, even if its novel tack surprised her, “It’s a double-edged sword, really,” she says. “We all use fossil fuels, after all.”

While lawyers prepare to spar over the case – which legal experts have likened to the lawsuits against tobacco companies that had covered up the dangers of smoking – Oppenheim has been interviewed by everyone from National Public Radio and The Guardian to Scientific American and Foreign Policy.

Rick Wahle, Oppenheim’s mentor while doing graduate studies at the University of Maine’s Darling Marine Center, says he isn’t the least surprised to see his former student in the national spotlight.

“He was a very confident guy from the outset and willing to take on big challenges,” Wahle recalls. “This is pretty consistent with what I’ve seen right from the time he was an undergraduate.”

University of Maine graduate student Noah Oppenheim of Falmouth sets up his underwater camera during an experiment that revealed cannibalization among lobsters off Pemaquid Point. Photo courtesy of Noah Oppenheim

Oppenheim is the son of retired social worker and renowned stained-glass artist Layne Gregory and Daniel Oppenheim, an endocrinologist at Maine Medical Partners who is a past president of the state chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, which seeks action on climate change, toxic substances and nuclear weapons. He attended Falmouth public schools and, for high school, Waynflete.

After he learned to dive, the sea continued to call. During his junior year at Oregon’s Reed College, he took part in a semester-abroad program in the Galapagos Islands, the volcanic Pacific archipelago that helped Charles Darwin develop the theory of evolution. While there he persuaded hammerhead shark researchers to take him on as a dive technician – ” ‘will dive for food,’ I told them” – and witnessed firsthand conflict between the Ecuadorean government (which had banned the sale of shark fins) and local fishermen (whose livelihoods were affected).

“It came down to whether the president was going to have the support of the fishing communities, which had become a linchpin in the national election, and the linchpin for those communities was shark finning,” he recalls of the 2007 national assembly campaign, during which President Rafael Correa lifted the ban. “It was an eye-opener for someone who was not politically trained to see how the human dimension was affecting the scientific dynamic.”

‘THEY GAVE ME A GREAT OPPORTUNITY’

He returned to Maine the summer before his senior year to take part in a Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences program for undergraduates to do independent research. There he met Wahle – then a research scientist at the lab – for the first time and worked with him on cannibalism in lobsters. (With other predators depleted, the big ones eat the little ones.) He turned the research into his undergraduate thesis. On graduation, he recalls, he took the most interesting job he could find that needed a biology degree.

A few months later, he was in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, serving as a federal fisheries observer aboard Bering Sea factory freezer trawlers.

He spent two years there, including several months as a fisherman on a salmon fishing vessel where, he says, “I learned what it meant to really work, to pour blood and sweat into a fishing operation.” He was also impressed by the level of independence and self-reliance that fishery required. “You’re out on a boat for two weeks at a time fishing salmon, and all you have are your own two hands and the toolbox that’s with you.”

He wanted to find a way to fuse his respect for small-scale fishermen with his interest in marine science and conservation. That led him back to Maine and Wahle, who helped him find grant support to cover part of the cost of the University of Maine’s dual master’s degree program in marine biology and fisheries policy. There was more work on cannibalism in lobsters, a project that continues to this day to create a better method of forecasting changes in lobster populations.

But what got Oppenheim on the path to his present work was a 2016 Sea Grant Knauss Fellowship for scientists to work for agencies in Washington. His posting was with U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, who represents the northern California coast where Dungeness crab fishermen were getting hammered by toxic algae-triggered closures. When the fellowship wrapped up in February 2017, Oppenheim took the job at the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, whose board is made up of commercial fishermen.

“I had experience working in federal policy and understanding Congress, so they gave me a great opportunity to work at a high level to support fishermen and a cause I believe in,” he says, “which is that small-scale fisheries are the best way to deliver seafood to consumers equitably and sustainably.”

The suit is the first legal action by a private industry group to seek damages from energy companies for losses attributed to climate change.