Jury selection begins in Bristol Bay price-fixing suit

Posted: Sunday, February 02, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Jury selection begins Monday in a class action lawsuit brought by Bristol Bay fishermen who accused processors and buyers of conspiring to fix prices in the world's largest salmon fishery.

The Alakayak case, filed in state Superior Court by attorney Bruce Stanford in the summer of 1995, poses questions of collusion and more. Class action members are more than 3,500 permit holders in the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon fishery.

They are seeking more than $1 billion in damages.

Jury selection is expected to take about two days, followed by opening statements. Superior Court Judge Peter A. Michalski has allocated plaintiffs three weeks to present their case, and the defense, 45 days.

''After all these years of litigation, the fishermen are finally going to have their day in court,'' Stanford said. ''We are very excited about the opportunity to present their case.''

One of those fishermen is Al Bauman, whose family has fished with setnets on the Kvichak River in Bristol Bay for 24 years.

''All these different corporations, and they all have the same operating costs, so the price to the fishermen comes out the same way for all of them?'' said a skeptical Bauman in a recent interview. ''I don't think so.''

The defense, meanwhile, is drawing support from businessmen like Jim Jansen, president of Lynden, Inc., whose transportation company employs about 500 people.

''This lawsuit, if it goes the wrong way, will be the end of the processing industry in Alaska,'' said Jansen. ''We won't have a fishing industry.''

Cordova businessswoman and former city mayor Margy Johnson worries that a jury decision for the plaintiffs could spell economic disaster for her community of 2,500 people.

''It will put some processors on their knees. It will put some processors out of business,'' Johnson said. In Cordova, ''every business is a fishing business,'' she said. ''This could be just absolutely disastrous.''

''What's especially difficult about this is we thought this was over in 1999,'' said Bob Thorstenson, president of United Fishermen of Alaska.

Thorstenson, whose father started the defendant firm Icicle Seafoods, said he has family members on both sides of the lawsuit. Icicle is owned 50 percent by employees.

''If this case goes down, there are no deep pockets,'' he said. ''All the people that slimed fish, operated forklifts, worked in the egg rooms, they own 50 percent of the company,'' he said. ''We're not talking about some big, huge, multinational corporation. Petersburg is where central ownership of Icicle is, and Icicle is 35 percent of the Petersburg economy.''

The UFA board, which represents 32 fishing groups, and 500 individual members, voted against taking a stand in the case. ''Right now we have at least 1,000 fishermen with no markets for their fish this summer. We have a lot of problems to sort through,'' Thorstenson said.

In addition, the lawsuit is keeping officials of these companies from running their businesses.

''Keeping them away from their headquarters right in the middle of the biggest crisis the salmon industry has ever had,'' he said.

Thorstenson and many others thought the years of litigation ended when Michalski, on July 2, 1999, issued summary judgments for all defendants in the case. Plaintiffs appealed.

Then last June, the Alaska Supreme Court overturned Michalski's ruling in favor of the defendant Japanese corporations which purchased the fish, and the Seattle-based processors. The case was remanded back to Superior Court.

The opinion, written by Chief Justice Dana Fabe, details the overall system of fish buying in Bristol Bay, and the plaintiffs' evidence that the companies might have been colluding to keep prices low in the early 1990s.

The court concluded there was sufficient evidence of possible anticompetitive practices that the case should go to trial. For example, the court noted, plaintiffs' lawyers had submitted evidence that ''tends to show that defendant processors and importers collaborated to exert pressure on smaller processors and importers who offered higher prices and threatened the stability of the lower prevailing market prices in Bristol Bay.''

Still, there is no direct evidence that the processors and some of their Japanese parent companies met in back rooms to set prices and market shares.

The Supreme Court noted that a plaintiff in an antitrust case ''may support his case solely with circumstantial evidence.'' But the plaintiffs do need to show more than simply a pattern of similar conduct by the defendant firms.

The Supreme Court decision also ruled that the fishermen could not claim damages beyond the normal four year statute of limitations, just because the possible antitrust violations amounted to a continuing pattern of conduct that extended beyond that period.

Meanwhile, three dozen mostly minor defendants have settled out of court for about $15 million. Those funds remain in an escrow account until the case is resolved, said Phillip Weidner, lead counsel for the plaintiffs.

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