Opening arguments begin in Bristol Bay sockeye lawsuit

Posted: Thursday, February 06, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Attorneys for Bristol Bay sockeye salmon fishermen told a Superior Court jury Wednesday that fish processors and importers conspired to take a higher cut of profits as their markets shrank in the late 1980s.

''When the pie shrunk, the only way they could keep eating as much was to take a larger piece,'' Stephen Susman said in his opening statement in the $1 billion lawsuit. ''Seattle processors and Japanese importers benefited; only the fishermen got hurt.

''This is about business ethics, not economics. It is about greed.''

More than four dozen attorneys, plus spectators, packed the third-floor courtroom, which was remodeled at a cost of $22,000 to accommodate both sides in the case. The courtroom is also wired with a big screen, projection gear and computer monitors to be shared by all the attorneys, all to accommodate what is the biggest anti-trust case of its kind alleging a conspiracy by fish processing companies and importers to fix prices.

Susman said evidence would show that as prices paid for the prized wild Alaska salmon dropped in Japan, processors and importers saw their overall percentage of the bottom line increase, while the percentage to fishermen decreased.

''We believe this conspiracy to lower grounds prices (the prices paid to the fishermen) began among importers in Japan and they brought the processors in,'' said Parker Folse, another of the plaintiffs' attorneys. ''Over time they linked up, and over time there was a conscious effort make money, or to at least reduce the amount of money they were going to lose (as the Japanese market for sockeye salmon fell),'' he said.

Folse gave jurors a sampling of what to expect in coming weeks of testimony, including evidence of efforts to pressure smaller processors like Baypack out of the competition. As a result of offering higher prices to fishers, ''1995 was Baypack's first and last season,'' Folse said.

What happened to the smaller processors, and the fishermen ''was made to happen by the heavy hand of the defendants here in this courtroom,'' Folse said. ''We hope you will find that these defendants broke the law and should be made to pay.''

The trial, expected to take upward of three months, stems from a lawsuit filed in the summer of 1995 on behalf of the fishermen in the world's largest sockeye salmon fishery. At one point, Michalski granted summary judgments to all defendants in the case, but on appeal by the plaintiffs, Alaska Supreme Court judges remanded the case back to the lower court for trial. The plaintiffs have been allocated three weeks to present their case, and the defense, 45 days.

Defendant Japanese importers include Okaya & Co. Ltd, Nichirei Corp., Nichiro Corp., Nippon Suisan Kaisha Ldt.Marubeni Corp., and Marubeni America Corp. The defendant Seattle processors include Trident Seafoods, Wards Cove Packing Co., Icicle Seafoods, Ocean Beauty Seafoods, Peter Pan seafoods, Unisea Inc. and North Pacific Processors.

Nichiro owns Peter Pan, Nippon Suisan owns Unisea and Maribeni owns North Pacific Processors.

Several other defendants have settled out of court for about $15 million and those funds are being held in escrow until the conclusion of court proceedings.

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