Defense begins opening arguments in Bristol Bay sockeye lawsuit

Posted: Friday, February 07, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) - World market conditions, not a conspiracy, were the real culprit behind lowered prices to fishermen, defense attorneys in the $1 billion Bristol Bay sockeye salmon lawsuit told Superior Court jurors Thursday.

''Nobody, but nobody, tells Chuck (Bundrant) what he's going to pay his fishermen,'' said Ralph Palumbo, lead attorney for defendant Trident Seafoods, in opening arguments for the defense. ''You're not going to see one document by a Japanese importer telling what price Trident should pay its fishermen.''

Trident's Bundrant, known as a company leader who calls all his own shots, ''fought with the Japanese to get as high a price as possible and he used every means at his disposal to get those prices up,'' Palumbo said.

''Chuck made up his own mind on the price he was going to pay his fishermen and his own mind on the price he would accept for his fish in Japan,'' he said.

Palumbo and Doug Fryer, lead attorney for Wards Cove Packing Co., opened for the defense, describing their clients as rooted in Alaska, and innocent of any conspiracy to fix prices in the world's richest sockeye salmon fishery from 1989 to 1995. Market forces beyond their control were responsible for lowered price to fishermen, they said. ''All the defendants have sworn, under oath, that there was no conspiracy,'' Fryer said.

Their opening statements contradicted those presented Wednesday on behalf of 4,500 fishermen who held Bristol Bay permits in those years.

Fishermen's attorneys, who include nationally known anti-trust lawyers, said they will show evidence of a conspiracy to give defendant fish processors and Japanese importers a bigger cut of a shrinking market in the late 1980s and early 1990s, at the expense of the fishing fleet.

The trial, expected to take upwards of three months, stems from a 1995 lawsuit filed on behalf of the fishermen. The fishermen are seeking more than $1 billion in damages.

Several dozen attorneys, plus spectators, quickly filled the third floor courtroom for a second day. The defense is expected to conclude opening statements Friday, and plaintiffs to begin presenting witnesses on Monday.

''Chuck is a self-made man who started as a deckhand and spent 40 years building Trident into what it is today,'' said Palumbo. ''Chuck spent 40 years building a reputation for honesty and integrity.''

Palumbo and Fryer described Bristol Bay as a very competitive fishery, hard hit by market forces beyond its control.

Defendants including Japanese importers Okaya & Co., Ltd., Nichirei Corp., Nichiro Corp., Nippon Suisan Kaisha Ltd., Marubeni Corp., and Marubenei America Corp. Defendant processors, with offices in Seattle, include Trident Seafoods, wards Cov 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. Settlement funds are being held in escrow until court proceedings are completed.

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