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Monday, February 10, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Processor settles in salmon lawsuit

ANCHORAGE — Marubeni, a major defendant in a Bristol Bay salmon price-fixing lawsuit, reached a $25 million settlement at the end of the first week of a trial involving some of the biggest names in the Pacific Northwest seafood-processing industry.

Company attorneys said Friday that the agreement was not an admission of wrongdoing, and officials of the Japanese conglomerate denied any involvement in illegal activities. The trial continues for other Bristol Bay importers and processors, who face claims from some 4,500 fishermen, many of whom are based in Washington state.

In the lawsuit, fishermen claim they were victimized by collusive pricing practices during the 1989 to 1995 Bristol Bay fishing seasons. Some media reports indicate the fishermen are seeking more than $1 billion in damages.

The case has drawn the biggest players in the Northwest seafood industry to a downtown Anchorage courtroom, which underwent a $22,000 remodel to accommodate four dozen attorneys and a phalanx of spectators. The trial is expected to last about three months.

Bristol Bay is an annual standout in the Alaska wild-salmon harvest, which ranks as the world's largest. Each year, millions of sockeye return to the bay's silty waters, and the red-fleshed salmon are a favorite in Japanese markets.

During the late 1980s, prices paid to fishermen soared. By 1989, the first year covered by the lawsuit, they reached a record $2.11 a pound. By 1995, the last year covered by the lawsuit, the average price had dropped to 77 cents a pound, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game statistics.

During that period, wholesale prices for sockeye softened as the Japanese economy slowed and global salmon supplies expanded. Attorneys for Alaska sockeye-salmon fishermen say that processors and importers then conspired to grab a bigger share of the salmon revenue by beating down the price paid to the bay gill-netters.

"When the pie shrunk, the only way they could keep eating as much was to take a larger piece," Stephen Susman, a Houston-based antitrust attorney said in opening arguments. "Seattle processors and Japanese importers benefited; only the fishermen got hurt."

Parker Folse, another plaintiff's attorney, showed documents outlining a plan by one importer in 1990 that called for cooperative efforts among processors and importers to reduce the price paid to fishermen.

But attorneys for the defendants argued that world market conditions were responsible for the lower prices. Big runs of wild salmon and the expansion of farmed harvests further drove down prices.

And attorneys for giant Trident Seafoods of Seattle rejected the idea that a Japanese company could dictate corporate pricing.

"Nobody, but nobody, tells (Trident owner) Chuck (Bundrant) what he's going to pay his fishermen," Trident attorney Ralph Palumbo said in opening arguments. Bundrant "fought with the Japanese to get as high a price as possible and he used every means at his disposal to get those prices up," Palumbo added.

The lawsuit, filed in 1995, alleges that Seattle-based processors and Japanese importers conspired to fix prices in Bristol Bay. The suit was first rejected by a lower-court judge in 1999, but plaintiffs appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court, which last June remanded the case to state Superior Court for trial.

The Supreme Court concluded there was sufficient evidence of possible anti-competitive practices to warrant a trial.

Remaining defendants in the trial are Japanese importers Okaya & Co. Ltd., Nichirei Corp., Nichiro Corp. and Nippon Suisan Kaisha Ltd. Defendant processors are Trident, Wards Cove, Icicle Seafoods, Ocean Beauty Seafoods, Peter Pan Seafoods and Unisea Inc.

Back in 1989, the heyday of the bay fishery, the average gill-net boat crew grossed more than $96,000. Permits that gave fishermen the right to join in the harvest sold for an average price topping $248,000.

By 1995, the average gill-net boat received much lower prices. But the harvest that year was much bigger than in 1989, and fishermen were still able to gross, on average, more than $90,000, according to Alaska state records.

But harvests shrank and prices continued to decline. Last year, the average Bristol Bay gill-net fisherman and crewman grossed less than $20,000, according to state records.

Seattle Times reporter Hal Bernton contributed to this article.

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