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Economist says competition for salmon was intense

Posted: Friday, March 21, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) Processors competed intensely for fish in the Bristol Bay salmon fishery, and it makes sense that most paid the same price for the salmon, an economist testified Thursday in a price-fixing suit being argued in Superior Court.

Peter Max, a Washington D.C. economist, testified for the defense in the seventh week in a class action lawsuit alleging that processors and importers conspired to lower prices paid to fishermen in the world's largest sockeye salmon fishery.

Plaintiffs are seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.

Max said that once one processor offers postseason price adjustments to its fishermen, other processors must match the price.

You would expect in a properly operated market (that) the prices would be quite close to each other,'' Max said. As a practical matter, it's the same product. It settles out that they all get about the same price.''

The trial stems from a 1995 lawsuit filed on behalf of 4,500 Bristol Bay sockeye salmon permit holders. The suit contends that Seattle-based processors and Japanese importers conspired to fix prices paid to fishermen from 1989 to 1995. The defense contends that world salmon market conditions, rather than a conspiracy, caused a drop in prices paid to fishermen.

Max said that between 1985 and 2001, 34 new processors who purchased at least 1 million pounds of sockeye for at least one year entered the Bristol Bay fishery. They bought 18 percent of the total of 2.6 billion pounds of sockeye purchased by processors for those years.

That's a lot of entry,'' he said.

While some processors stayed only for one season, and a total of 47 processors left the bay during the same period, the entries and exits were significant, Max said.

It suggests independent action, vigorous competition among the players, and a well-working, competitive market,'' he said.

So far, more than a dozen defendants have settled out of court, for over $40 million. Those funds are being held in escrow until the conclusion of the trail, at which time Superior Court Judge Peter Michalski will determine how the funds will be distributed.

The trial began Feb. 3 and is expected to take at least three months. After Friday, a recess has been called until April 1.



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