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Seafood Giant’s Tactics Fishy, Rival Claims

NEWPORT, Ore. (CN) - Seafood giant Pacific Seafood is trying to ruin a small company that buys its crabs from independent fishermen in an attempt to maintain its stranglehold on West Coast fisheries, the small fry claims in court.

Seawater Seafoods Company, owner Bret Hamrick and Front St. Marine sued Pacific Seafood Group dba Pacific Shrimp Company, Dulcich Realty Acquisition, Pacific Hooker and Pacific Fishing in Lincoln County Circuit Court on Tuesday, demanding $930,000 for interference and trespass.

The small company says Pacific Seafood is not the greatest neighbor. Seawater leases a spot on the Yaquina Bay dock right next to Pacific Seafood, and it says Pacific is trying to force it out of business.

This isn't the first time that Pacific Seafood has faced such claims. In 2012, Pacific Seafood settled an antitrust class action filed in Federal Court by a group of commercial fishermen with a deal that promised Pacific Seafood would undertake a series of "pro-competitive" actions, including abandoning its marketing agreement with Ocean Gold Seafoods, an original defendant in the case and the largest processor of whiting on the Northwest coast.

This past January, the same lead plaintiffs sued again in Federal Court, this time to block Pacific Seafood's plan to buy a controlling stake in Ocean Gold. The fishermen say the pending acquisition would create a monopoly that would prevent competition in the markets for whiting, groundfish and coldwater shrimp. A trial in that case is set for February 2016.

In the current lawsuit, Seawater Seafoods says Pacific Seafood parked a derelict skiff at a spot on the dock that it knew would obstruct Seawater's ability to receive live crabs from independent fishermen.

Pacific Seafood had no legitimate business reason to park the skiff there, Seawater says. But the presence of the skiff forced fishermen to offload their catches half a mile further away from Seawater's processing building, often resulting in the loss of business from fishermen who didn't want to deal with that hassle, according to the complaint.

Pacific Seafoods installed a camera on the skiff to record every purchase Seawater made from independent fishermen, Seawater says. Intimidated by the camera, many fishermen refused to deliver live crab to Seawater's facility, the lawsuit states.

The seafood giant also let ammonia gas leak though the shared wall between its building and plaintiff's building. The gas killed 2,500 pounds of live crab and bleached them all white, according to the complaint.

And Pacific Seafood placed dumpsters and totes in spots on the sidewalk that it knew would disrupt Seawater's ability to prepare for the upcoming crab season, set to begin on Dec. 1, the lawsuit states.

Seawater demands $930,000 and an injunction ordering Pacific Seafood to abandon "illegal tactics designed only to destroy plaintiff Seawater Seafoods and the sole business of its owner, plaintiff Bret Hamrick."

Michael Haglund is representing Seawater Seafoods. Haglund is also representing the plaintiffs in the antitrust lawsuit, and did not return a request for comment.

Pacific Seafood's attorney declined to comment on the record. But the company filed an opposition motion Wednesday, claiming the dispute was little more than a turf war.

In its motion, Pacific said it is using every inch of its docks and accused Seawater of letting its boats drift into Pacific's docking area.

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