Importer pressed for low fish prices, memos show

Posted: Wednesday, April 09, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) - Documents presented Tuesday in a price-fixing lawsuit detail efforts by a Japanese importer to lower prices paid to Bristol Bay fishermen in 1991.

A memorandum from Nichiro Corp. summarized 1991 preseason discussions with Peter Pan Seafoods Inc., a subsidiary. It said raw fish prices planned by the processor were too high.

Nichiro and Peter Pan Seafoods, which Nichiro purchased in 1979, are two of the defendants in a multi-million dollar class action lawsuit in progress in Superior Court since Feb. 3. Attorneys for 4,500 Bristol Bay sockeye salmon permit holders argue that the Japanese importers and Seattle-based processors conspired to keep prices for sockeye low from 1989 to 1995.

The defense claims prices were lowered by the impact of an oversupply of fish and a slowdown in the world economy.

Evidence introduced earlier in the trial showed that another Japanese importer, Okaya & Co., Ltd., pressed Wards Cove Packing Co. to lower its prices to fishermen in the same season.

The Nichiro documents note that Hirochi Suzuki of Nichiro, who was in charge of the salmon section of Peter Pan at the time, pressed for lower prices at a meeting in Seattle in April 1991.

With an anticipated run of 25 million sockeye into Bristol Bay, raw fish prices were too high for importers, whose losses in 1990 may have exceeded $285 million, Suzuki said. The Japanese market also indicated lower prices than those Peter Pan officials had budgeted, the memo said.

The documents were presented during cross-examination of Don Rawlinson, a retired Bristol Bay manager for Peter Pan. Rawlinson denied that Nichiro ever controlled the prices Peter Pan paid to fishermen, but said price confirmation calls between processors were common.

''One processor would call another and say, 'May I confirm that you are paying X?' The response would be either yes or no, and that was the end of the conversation,'' he said.

The defense also called Donald Nielsen, of South Naknek, who has fished Bristol Bay for 25 years. Nielsen was a top executive with the Bristol Bay Native Corp. from 1975 to 1979, when the regional Native firm owned Peter Pan.

Nielsen said he came to testify ''on behalf of myself and my village.'' Nielsen said that while he felt an obligation to deliver his fish to Peter Pan after using company services, he didn't feel pressured to do so.

''We are not employees. We are business people,'' he said.

Nielsen also said people in South Naknek considered fish processing companies in their village part of the community.

In 1991, when most fishermen went on strike for higher prices, ''there wasn't much money in the community,'' he said. Some families were helped financially because processors kept employees on longer than usual after the strike ended, he said. ''I commend them for that.''

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