State Sen. Stevens called to testify in salmon lawsuit

Posted: Friday, February 21, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- One of the fish-processing companies accused of conspiring to fix the price of salmon wants to put state Sen. Ben Stevens on the witness stand to testify in the processors' defense.

Stevens, R-Anchorage, a former Bristol Bay commercial fisherman, has agreed to testify in the civil lawsuit being heard in state Superior Court in Anchorage.

In an affidavit filed with the court, Stevens said that he ''saw no evidence of collusion'' among processors and Japanese importers to depress raw salmon prices to gillnetters.

Stevens says he can offer perspective not only as a former fisherman, but as a person who once helped market Alaska seafood in Asia where much of the Bristol Bay red salmon goes.

The fishermen's lawyers are fighting to keep Stevens off the witness stand, and to restrict what he and other fishermen friendly to the processors and importers can say.

Just before the trial began on Feb. 3, Stevens successfully petitioned the court to be excluded from the class of 4,500 fishermen, who are seeking more than $1 billion in damages for catches in 1991 to 1995.

Stevens said he couldn't accept money from the case as a lawmaker who might have to vote on reforms affecting the struggling salmon industry. He also said the industry could be ruined if fishermen, about half of whom he noted don't live in Alaska, win a big judgment.

The processors and importers contend that market demand, not collusion, determined dockside prices for Bristol Bay reds.

When the case originally was filed in 1995, Stevens says he received a notice giving him the choice of becoming a member of the plaintiff class or opting out. He says he gave it little thought, meaning he automatically became a class member.

Lawyers for the fishermen are opposing the motion by Seattle-based Trident Seafoods Corp., the biggest Bristol Bay salmon processor, to add Stevens to their witness list after a court-imposed deadline.

They also say Stevens once worked as a Washington, D.C., lobbyist for Trident and that he opted out of the class even though he knew he wasn't a member. They suggested in papers filed Thursday that the opt out ''was political grandstanding by Sen. Stevens in an effort to assist defendants on the eve of jury selection.''

''That's a crock,'' Stevens said. ''They're just trying to disqualify me with anything they can find because they don't want somebody who understands the fishery and marketing dynamics and maybe business.''

Stevens acknowledged that he last held a permit in his name in the 1990 season, prior to the disputed 1991-95 period. But he said he believed after consulting his attorney that he remained a class member. In any event, Stevens said he continued to captain a friend's boat at Bristol Bay in 1991.

The trial is expected to last through April.

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