Company ordered to pay fishing crews more for pollock roe harvest

Posted: Tuesday, December 18, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- American Seafoods Co., the largest operator of Bering Sea fishing ships, should pay crew members an extra $1.86 million for work during last winter's pollock season, a federal judge in Seattle has ruled.

The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by 669 crew members, ranging from engineers to fish cleaners, who said the company failed to pay them their full share of profits from the harvest of pollock roe. The lawsuit had sought as much as $23 million.

''We got part of what we asked for,'' said Brad Bagshaw, lead attorney for the crewmen. ''We're pleased that the court found that the company breached the contract that it made with the fishermen.''

Judge Thomas Zilly ruled that a breach of contract between the company and its crew was not willful. Rather, the problem involved whether the crew members, many of whom did not speak English as their first language, fully understood the contract.

The judge ruled against the crew members on several other issues, including whether the contract violated federal law.

Mike Hyde, president of Seattle-based American Seafoods, said he too is pleased with some aspects of the judgment. In particular, he said the judge's ruling made clear that fishing contracts with crews can't be held illegal based on minor, technical omissions.

''We had a contract that we believed was perfectly clear,'' he said. ''The judge found the compensation provision was ambiguous. The judge also found that we made every effort to explain it to the crew but our efforts were not good enough. As a result, there was a contractual breach, but it was not intentional or willful.''

Hyde also noted that the company felt its employee contract was correct and that the $1.86 million amount is likely to be reduced to about $1.5 million because about 20 percent of the company's vessel crewmen decided not to take part in the class-action lawsuit.

Seattle-based American Seafoods operates a fleet of vessels known as factory trawlers that both catch and process fish, mostly pollock, into products such as fish fillets and fish paste called surimi. The pollock also yield valuable roe or eggs.

It was the unexpectedly high market value of the roe during the winter 2000 pollock fishery that helped spawn the lawsuit. Pollock caught by American Seafoods during that time was worth $117.5 million, with the roe valued at $79.3 million of the total, according to Zilly's ruling.

Bagshaw said crewmen on one of American's five pollock factory trawlers, the Ocean Rover, had e-mailed his firm from the vessel with concerns that the crew wasn't going to benefit despite the high roe prices. Crews on fishing vessels are paid ''crew shares'' based on the total value of the catch.

The judge ruled that damages were owed because of contract ambiguity over how performance bonuses were to be paid.

Most of the crewmen live in Washington state, where the fishing ships are based.

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