ANCHORAGE - A permit holder in the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon fishery said Monday that processors often kept fishermen guessing about what price their catch would net until well after the end of the season.
"You never know what the price is going to be until the season is over, and sometimes before the next season is about to start," said Jerry Hatton, the first of dozens of witnesses expected to testify in Superior Court in a $1 billion class-action lawsuit.
The lawsuit filed in 1995 alleges that Seattle-based processors and Japanese importers conspired from 1989 to 1995 to fix prices in Bristol Bay. One of the major defendants, Marubeni Corp. of Japan, reached a $25 million settlement in the case. Other defendants have settled out of court for $15 million. Settlement funds exceeding $40 million are being held in escrow until the conclusion of the court proceedings.
Attorneys for some 4,500 fishermen say the defendants conspired to grab a higher portion of profits as markets shrank in the late 1980s.
The defense contends that world salmon market conditions caused the reduced prices to fishermen.
Hatton's testimony contradicted opening statements by lawyers for Icicle Seafoods that fishermen shared processors' enthusiasm for starting the season with no price commitment for harvested fish.
"Absolutely not," said Hatton, 60, who comes to fish Bristol Bay each summer from his home near Oakland, Ore. "I didn't feel (defendant) Peter Pan or Icicle paid a fair fish price. I felt they put all the gamble on my back."
Hatton also told jurors about the cost and uncertainty of being a Bristol Bay permit holder.
During the 1993 season, he signed with defendant All Alaska Seafoods, who has since settled out of court, to deliver all his harvest from the Ugashik fishery. He ended up dumping 38,000 pounds of sockeye because the tender from All Alaska Seafoods refused to take his catch, despite the signed agreement.
"It was the largest catch I ever had and probably largest catch I'll ever have," Hatton said. After searching unsuccessfully for a buyer, he testified he had no choice but to get a permit from state officials to dump the entire catch.