ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) Jurors took about six hours Friday to decide there was no conspiracy by salmon processors and Japanese importers to control the price paid to Bristol Bay fishermen nearly a decade ago.
After sitting through nearly four months of testimony and the last morning of closing arguments, jurors quickly rejected the multimillion-dollar class action lawsuit brought on behalf of 4,500 fishermen in the world's largest sockeye salmon fishery.
''I'm just relieved, and justice prevailed,'' said Chuck Bundrant, president of Trident Seafoods, one of 10 defendants remaining in the case.
Clearly emotional as he left the courtroom, Bundrant said he would be spending time on the phone.
''I just have to call 4,000 people and tell them I still have a job,'' Bundrant said.
''You never know what to think, but we were confident all along that there was no conspiracy,'' said Alec Brindle, president of Wards Cove Packing.
Phillip Weidner, an attorney for the fishermen, said his side would have no immediate comment on the verdict.
Fishermen sought in excess of a billion dollars in damages.
But jurors said no to the first question on the verdict form: Did one or more of the defendants knowingly participate in a conspiracy which reduced the prices paid to plaintiffs for raw sockeye salmon in Bristol Bay between 1991 and 1995.
The answer drew applause, hugs, and a warning from Superior Court Judge Superior Court Judge Peter A. Michalski to maintain decorum.
A handful of defendants settled the claims against them rather than go through the trial. They paid about $40 million in settlement money.
Choosing to fight the case were Seattle-based processor Trident, Wards Cove, Icicle Seafoods, Ocean Beauty Seafoods, Peter Pan Seafoods and Unisea, plus Japanese importers Okaya, Nichirei, Nichiro, and Nippon Suisan Kaisha.
Attorneys for the fishermen said market forces could not explain why the fishermen's share of profits diminished.
Pointing to the alignment of prices, the maintenance of market share by the major processors, extensive communications between them regarding price and alleged suppression of competition, they said there must have been collusion.
They said fishermen were underpaid by hundreds of millions of dollars for nearly a billion pounds of fish over the five-year period.
Processors said lower prices were caused by world market conditions, which included a long Asian recession that lowered demand and competition from farmed salmon that boosted supply.
The fishermen's attorneys acknowledged their case was based on circumstantial evidence. Jurors said the fishermen did not make their case.
''There was not solid enough evidence,'' said jury foreman Michael Nourse. ''It was so circumstantial. It was too circumstantial.''
He said jurors took the time to review the fishermen's best evidence.
''There wasn't a smoking gun,'' Nourse said. ''There wasn't even a smoldering gun. We were looking for a smoking gun.''
All 12 jurors rejected the notion of a conspiracy, Nourse said.
Brindle and others said the trial has been a financial and emotional drain on their companies.
''Now hopefully, we can get on with our business,'' Brindle said.
''It's totally occupied the industry and it's paralyzed the salmon industry, not just in Bristol Bay but throughout Alaska,'' said Don Giles, president of Icicle Seafoods.
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