Processor says boycott bucked law of supply and demand

Posted: Tuesday, April 15, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A defendant processor in the Britol Bay sockeye salmon lawsuit said Monday that market conditions and fishermen's boycott to protest prices prompted lower prices for fewer fish in 1991.

Then in 1992, the ripple effect of the same boycott, and Japanese market conditions, produced higher prices for a larger harvest, testified Alec Brindle, chairman of the board of Wards Cove Packing Co.

Brindle acknowledged, under cross examination, that what happened didn't jibe with normal laws of supply and demand, which dictate higher prices for fewer fish, and vice versa.

Brindle's testimony came at the start of a tenth 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 from 1989 through 1995. They're seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. The processors say lower prices were caused by an oversupply of fish and a slowdown in the world economy.

Figures compiled by fishermen's attorneys show the price paid to fishermen for their sockeye salmon harvest in Bristol Bay dropped 31 percent in 1991, when the harvest declined 23 percent. The following year, when the harvest rose 24 percent, the price paid to fishermen rose 49 percent, the tables showed.

Plaintiffs' attorney Steve Susman kept asking Brindle to explain the economic anomaly.

''Market conditions in Japan,'' coupled with the boycott, drove prices down in 1991, Brindle said. In 1991, ''everybody was totally exhausted after the 1991 strike. Everyone just wanted to go fishing,'' he said.

Susman also questioned Brindle about ten price verification phone calls he made to other processing companies during the 1991 season, according to entries from Brindle's personal journal, which was introduced into evidence.

Brindle's records note 1991 price verification calls to several processors owned by Marubeni Corp., a Japanese importer and defendant which was also a major customer of Wards Cove. Marubenei settled out of court for $25 million, just after the trial got under way.

''You were talking to a customer and competitor at the same time,'' Susman said.

Brindle said Wards Cove's policy was to be a price follower, rather than a price leader, and that post-season bonuses were given only to remain competitive.

The fishermen's lawyer also asked Brindle about the relationship between the price paid to fishermen and the price processors received from importers for the finished product.

''Why would an importer care what you pay for your fish?'' Susman said.

''Everybody loves to speculate about fish prices,'' Brindle said.

Brindle also again emphatically denied any conspiracy with other processors or importers to lower prices.

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