Processor always hoped next season would be better

Posted: Sunday, April 13, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A processor who's a defendant in the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon lawsuit says his company kept returning to the bay, year after year, despite millions of dollars in losses.

''We were born to the fish business,'' testified Alec Brindle, chairman of the board of Wards Cove Packing Co. ''That's what we do. We always hope next season will be better. We've been having a lot of downs, but there's got to be an up sometime.''

Company records presented Friday in Anchorage Superior Court show Wards Cove lost nearly $30 million in Bristol Bay from 1989 through 2001.

Wards Cove announced late last year that it was selling its salmon processing facilities. Brindle said the company was getting just $2 million for three Bristol Bay canneries with a replacement value of $90 million.

Brindle's testimony wrapped up the ninth week of the class action lawsuit under way in Superior Court.

Lawyers for 4,500 Bristol Bay sockeye salmon permit holders charge that major Japanese importers and Seattle-based processors conspired to lower prices to Bristol Bay fishermen. They're seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.

The processors blame an oversupply of fish and a slowdown in the world economy for the lower prices.

Brindle, testifying for a second day, denied pressure from importers, or any agreements with them, to lower the prices paid to fishermen. Brindle is expected to face cross-examination Monday.

Earlier in the week, Barry Collier, president of Peter Pan Seafoods, another processor defendant, wouldn't say why his company continued to process frozen salmon in Bristol Bay at a loss.

Graphics prepared by the processors' lawyers indicate that Peter Pan, owned by defendant importer Nichiro Corp., consistently lost money on frozen sockeye and made a profit on canned fish.

''Why would a rational businessman for seven years continue to produce a product at a loss when there were ways of avoiding that loss?'' Steve Susman, a lead attorney for the fishermen, asked Collier during his testimony.

Collier said some facilities used to freeze sockeye products were instrumental to Peter Pan's production of crab. ''And we had to keep those boats going during the summertime,'' he said.

The processors, who are presenting their defense now, also called a small Naknek processor who garnered a marginal share of the harvest, to support the argument that processors were in hot competition in Bristol Bay.

John Lowrance, the Naknek processor, said Japanese importer Shoji Sudoh loaned him money to start Quality First Seafoods, which he formed in 1993 with four Bristol Bay permit holders.

After subtracting expenses, including a fee of five percent of its gross sales that went to Shoji Sudoh, Quality First made $375,000 in 1994. At season's end, Lowrance said, he sold his share of the company.

Lowrance said cooperation from defendant processors Trident Seafoods and Ocean Beauty also helped make the first year a success.

Under cross examination, Lowrance acknowledged that Quality First processed 1.3 million pounds of sockeye in 1994, and just 891,000 pounds in 1995. The company's market share was about 0.5 percent of the harvest in Bristol Bay for the two years of production.

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