Copper River disaster

chinook pacific northwest national laboratory

Disappearing king salmon/Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

This is a developing story

No one seems to have any idea what sort of astronomical price a rare and iconic Copper River king salmon from Alaska might demand when the commercial fishing season opens in about a week – if there are any fish to be sold.

The Alaska Board of Fisheries is facing an emergency petition to ban the sale of the big fish in the name of conservation. Alaska subsistence fishermen who are supposed to have a fishing priority but have already been told they will be restricted to a limit of two kings each for the entire season are talking about the possibility of a lawsuit if the state allows the commercial king fishery to open.

And even if the start of the fishery proceeds as scheduled on May 18, the opening day catch is expected to be no more than a few hundred fish, if that, given that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has already ordered the closure of fishing areas where most kings are caught.

All of this makes the mood in the tiny, isolated fishing port of Cordova tense.

“Young guys in debt are panicking,” long-time fisherman Jerry McCune said Wednesday. “They’ve cut off the whole inside to fishing and moved everyone offshore. You don’t catch that many kings offshore.”

McCune said he caught two in those waters last year during a season that ran from mid-May into July.

Alaska’s biggest deal

Copper River kings usually highlight the opening of commercial summer, salmon netting in the 49th state. The fish have traditionally taken the starring role in a national culinary celebration with Alaska Airlines jets dispersing the big fish fresh from Cordova to upscale restaurants across the country.

Seafood buyers in Seattle last year were clamoring “to spend upwards of $50 per pound for the coveted catch,” reported KIRO radio, one of a variety of Seattle media outlets devoting news coverage to the arrival of the first of the fish there.

The year before the fish warranted a 23-photo spread on the webpages of USA Today, the national newspaper. The Atlantic magazine in 2010 devoted a whole story to “How Copper River Salmon Got So Famous.”

“In Seattle, New York, Tokyo and Los Angeles,” Timothy Egan of the New York Times wrote of one opener, “anxious chefs clicked onto websites and called fishermen on cell phones. Forget the (rotten) weather. The chefs wanted to know how the fish looked. Then, ‘Bulletin! Bulletin! Six kings landed!’ flashed on computer screens.”

That was then and now?

Biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game are forecasting the worst run of kings – or Chinooks, as they are otherwise known – in 32 years. The sport fishery for kings in the Copper River basin has already been ordered closed for the year.  And along with the commercial fishery facing severe area restrictions to try and limit their catch to more plentiful sockeye salmon and minimize the king catch, there is the possibility the sale of kings will be banned by the time the season opens to provide an even greater incentive for fishermen to avoid the fish.

The Board of Fisheries meets on the 17th to consider the petition from the Fairbanks Fish and Game Advisory Committee to eliminate the commercial king fishery.

Alaska’s subsistence tangle

Fairbanks committee chairman Virgil Umpenhour, a former member of the Fish Board, said he doesn’t see where the state has much choice but to shut down the king fishery. It is what the board did on the Yukon River to stop commercial fisheries from catching kings destined for subsistence nets upstream. It is what the state did on the Kuskokwim River to stop commercial fisheries from catching kings destined for subsistence nets upstream.

The board, he said, needs to treat Copper River subsistence fishermen “the same way we treat them on the Yukon River. This (situation) is exactly why we have federal management.”

The federal government took over management of subsistence fisheries in Alaska rivers in 1999 in the wake of an Alaska Supreme Court ruling that held that giving people special hunting and fishing privileges solely on the basis of residency violated equal access provisions in the Alaska Constitution.

Passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands and Conservation Act in 1980 had granted “rural” Alaskans a priority on the killing of fish and wildlife. No other state has such a law. In the years following passage of ANILCA, the state and federal governments struggled with how to implement the federal standard.

The state tried a variety of schemes to comply with the law, but eventually concluded the only way to do so would be to amend the state constitution. That didn’t happen, and in 1990 the feds took over management of wildlife in an area larger than the size of Texas.

Not only national park lands, which are managed by the federal government everywhere, came under federal management but so, too, lands owned by the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In all other states, wildlife on such lands is managed under state authority.

Fisheries were at that time left unchanged because of confusion as to who had authority over state waters. Most of the water in the state is technically under state control. The state owns the water outright, and it owns the land beneath the water in all streams and rivers judged “navigable.”

Enter Katie John

In 1984, Athabaskan elders Katie John from the small community of Mentasta and Doris Charles from the equally small village of Dot Lake asked the Board of Fish to open a subsistence salmon fishery at a deserted village site far up the Copper River. The board said no.

In 1987, the Native American Rights Funds filed suit demanding such a fishery under the terms of the state subsistence law. The Board responded by offering to grant the women a special permit with a limit of 1,000 fish. John and her attorneys thought the state requirements too restrictive and pushed to have the permit requirement eliminated.

They were in court with the state when the feds took over management of wildlife. Recognizing an opportunity, John’s lawyers filed a new lawsuit against the federal government seeking to broaden the definition of federal “public lands” to include waters. The suit dragged on in the courts for three years, but in 1994 U.S. District Court Judge Russell Holland ruled in John’s favor.

The state appealed to the federal Court of Appeals and lost. A request for the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case was denied.

“This is a great victory for American Indians and Alaska Natives,” Ada Deer, the assistant secretary for Indian Affairs in the Department of the Interior said at the time. “Many of our people still depend on subsistence fishing and hunting as a means to provide food for their families. Subsistence living is a culturally based practice and I view it as a fundamental, aboriginal right.”

It would be another four years before the feds fully and finally stepped in, but since the year 2000, they have been actively involved in managing fish in Alaska, although generally acquiescing to state plans when resources are plentiful.

“Today, Alaska’s subsistence management ‘system’—if that is the proper term—is a complex melange that is managed by both the state and federal governments,” a National Park Service history of the issue notes. “Subsistence decisions are made by the state game and fish boards and by the Federal Subsistence Board, and serving these boards in an advisory capacity are various local advisory committees, subsistence resource commissions, regional advisory councils, along with other groups and agencies. Despite the Federal Subsistence Board’s titular leadership, a seeming tyranny of democracy prevails, in which both rural and urban Alaskans of all stripes have a voice, and rural groups additionally benefit through various so-called Section 809 agreements through which various data collection, project management and monitoring projects are conducted.”

On the Copper River, everything was fine when there were enough kings to provide an income for roughly 500 commercial drift-net permit holders working out of Cordova and still allow the subsistence fishery upstream to operate freely.

And now, with the state trying to manipulate the system to maintain catch in the commercial fishery at a time when kings are in short supply, “we’re right back in the same place we were 30 years ago,” Umpenhour said.

“What’s ridiculous in all this fish and wildlife management, we don’t learn a damn thing from history.

“I think that Ahtna (the regional Native corporation for the Copper River area) will probably take legal action if the board doesn’t act. This is what the Katie John decision was all about.”

Ignore it

Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten, a commercial fisherman for most of his life, has recommended the board ignore the Fairbanks petition.

“This letter is to formally notify you pursuant to AS 44.62.230, that based on the information available to me I cannot conclude that an emergency under 5 AAC 96.625(f) exists and I deny the emergency petition,” he wrote the Fairbanks committee on May 4, adding:

“This is my final decision on your emergency petition. The board has been notified of my decision and two members of the board may call a special meeting to discuss the petition if they choose to do so.”

Two members did, according to Umphenour. Whether the board has the votes to act in support of the petition will be decided at that meeting. Knowledgeable observers doubt the votes are there on a board dominated by commercial fishing interests.

Federal officials have so far gone along with the state decision and restricted the federal subsistence fishery to two kings, but that restriction can be appealed to the Federal Subsistence board. The situation is complicated.

The Fairbanks petition goes into it in great detail and predicts a probable move of some fishermen from the state subsistence program to the federal subsistence program to gain more freedom from onerous state regulations.

“The (state) subsistence fishwheels are further restricted to ‘closely attended’ status,” the petition notes. “The department expects 75 to 100 (or) more local fishermen who qualify will switch from the state permit to avoid the restrictions. Avoiding the ‘closely attended’ requirement will drive this change. Traditionally fishwheels here run through the night and are required to have empty catch boxes every 10 hours.”

The state is demanding fishwheel operators post a continuous, standing watch on their wheels and immediately release any king they seen spun up out of the muddy Copper.

Serious conservation concern

But the Fairbanks board’s big concern is not with the operation of the fishery but with the potential kings will be overharvested.

The forecast return is 29,000 of the big fish. The minimum spawning goal is 24,000, “which leaves 5,000 in the harvestable surplus,” the petition says.

“The commercial harvest goal is 3,500. Which leaves 1,500 for subsistence. The five-year average harvest for (Cordova) home pack is 317 and the five year average for the Glennallen (subsistence) Subdistrict is 2,486. The combination subsistence harvest is (thus) 2,803.

“The department hopes to reduce the subsistence harvest by restricting each (subsistence) permit to two kings. The five-year year average for state permits is 1,726 and they harvested 1,849 kings per year – well under the two-fish per permit limit. Restricting upriver subsistence will most likely be a ‘feel good’ management action not likely to reduce the average harvest.”

The Fairbanks math pushes the number of spawners more than 1,000 fish under the minimum goal, which some believe is already too low.  The petition calls the state’s existing plan “very high risk” even though the state has already closed all king salmon sport fisheries in the Copper River basin, a serious blow to local tourism businesses, and prohibited personal-use dipnet fishermen from keeping kings once their season opens in June.

State Director of Commercial Fisheries Scott Kelley did not return phone calls asking for information. Glenn Haight, the director of the state Board of Fisheries, did not return phone calls asking for information.

McCune, the commercial fishermen, said the situation is a mess. He’s hoping the fish defy the scientists and come back in much greater numbers than are predicted, but he’s not really expecting that.

“The pattern has changed,” he said. “It’s really warmed up. I’ve been here for 50 some years. The fish are smaller (now); they’re running deeper.”

Like many others, he expects shifts in the ocean environment are playing a role. Chinook runs have been weak all over the state for several years. But no one knows exactly why. The North Pacific Ocean covers an area the size of a continent, and most of what happens there happens unseen beneath the seas.

That makes it hard to pinpoint what might be going on at sea to diminish king salmon runs.

All anyone knows is that the fish aren’t returning the way they used to and that has big implications for fishermen of all sorts and for fish buyers. If the Cordova fishery catches kings this year, there won’t be many.

But given there aren’t many, Cordova fishermen could well benefit from huge, huge prices. With the thousands of kings caught last year fetching more than $50 a pound; $100 a pound for hundreds of kings this year might not be impossible.

If there are fish to sell.












31 replies »

  1. As I mentioned in my post above, looking back at the 2017 run, ADF&G was way off on their king run strength prediction. In spite of unprecedented the commercial fleet was catching good numbers of kings. And all those uncalled for upriver restrictions were rescinded. This is the fallacy of managing salmon runs off of a prediction. In season indicators are the only thing that makes sense.

    And if the commercial season had been shut down completely like some of you wanted, including Mr “The Sky is Falling” Medred, there would have been no data to justify opening the upper Copper for king fishing.

    Now I see they are doing the same thing in upper Cook Inlet this year.

  2. Just an additional comment. Cotten didn’t advise the board to “ignore” the Fairbanks AC petition. He said, in their opinion, the petition doesn’t
    meet the criteria of “emergency” as defined by the Board when considering out-of -cycle requests. That’s a significant difference from telling the Board to ignore the petition. The Department’s analysis of the petition and it’s justifications for its proposed management actions is available online at the Board of Fisheries website and is far more expansive than the short letter Cotten addressed to the AC

  3. How would the king fishery be stopped? Hmmm… How about changing the way fish are captured. Tangle nets are the root of the problem in mixed stock fisheries. Fish traps are a good solution during times like these. Most everyone wins.

    • and i suppose a Commie would want to make those fish traps commune owned? it’s a non-starter, however, given traps are legally banned in Alaska, but fish wheels are legal. one could conceivably convert part of the Copper River fishery to wheels to gain more control over species composition in the harvest.

      • Yessir Craig, and so are dipnets legal!
        Which part of Copper River fishery would you think would be ripe to convert to fishwheels and dipnets? Any portion of commercial fishery converted would put fishermen in the river, rather than in the ocean, and along with this make their boats (and other gear) obsolete. This, of course, would make a bit hit with all the infrastructure available in Cordova to keep those boats running, too. No problem for armchair fish managers though, IMO.

      • Bill – as you well know, boats have been going obsolete for decades. whether state-mandated changes would be good for business or bad for business in Cordova is hard to say. new boats get sold; near gear is needed; all of those things fuel the consumer economy. or as Commie suggested, the state could go to traps and do everything a lot more efficiently.

      • Craig-boats have not been going obsolete for decades!!!
        Old boats become obsolete for various reasons and are replaced with new ones but there are no salmon fisheries, that I know of anyway, that are not using boats in some fashion.
        Of course the state could go to traps, for the efficiency, but you’ve already mentioned that as a “non-starter” (legally banned) since that sort of efficiency does away with much of the consumer economy. So far as I know, nobody (other than Commie) is pushing fish traps, for efficiency or any other reason. You’ve suggested fish wheels, which may also be more efficient, but efficiency is not something that is being called for IMO.

  4. It is no surprise that Commissioner Cotten denied the petition. He has and always will be in the pocket of the commercial fishing industry. The Alaska Board of Fisheries abdicated their duty when they voted to allow the Commisioner determine whether an emergency exists. Talk about putting the fox in charge of the chicken house.

  5. Just to clarify, the board didn’t call an emergency meeting(and all that would entail), they have only agreed to consider an emergency petition during an all ready scheduled meeting( Bering Sea Tanner Crab harvest strategy). This means there will be no public comment, just a reading of the petition and then a vote.

    • No. The BOF will be “reviewing” the commissioners decision. Far different than making an independent decision on whether an emergency exists. It is a done deal and the Board will not have the courage to buck the Commissioner. It is almost shameful!

  6. “Knowledgeable observers doubt the votes are there on a board dominated by commercial fishing interests.” This statement implies that at least 4 of 7 members of the current Board of Fish are more interested in commercial fishing opportunity than any other. I consider myself a knowledgeable observer, and do not believe that to be true or accurate. I wonder Craig if you could expound on your statement? Which members do you feel are dominated by commercial interests?

    • Todd Smith: Craig can not ethically not answer your question. But I can. And you know exactly who would vote against the petition! Jensen, Jeffrey, Johnson are each commercial fishers. Ruffner made it quite clear at the Upper Cook Inlet meeting that he was aligned with the commercial interests. As you well know those four will vote against any restrictions to the commercial fisheries in this case. Just as they did in UCI. You and your friends who also set net in CI have been part of the problem when it comes down to the Low abundance of Kings in CI and it is clear that you have little interest in conserving them anywhere in the State.

      • Craig cannot ethically answer you question. But I can

      • Ruffner made it quite clear that he was educated on the issues and trying pretty hard to be fair, as did other board members. I think most knowledgeable observers would agree that while Jensen, Jeffrey, and Johnson are all commercial fishers, they are not all currently members of the Board of Fish…

      • Fritz Johnson is not on the Board, least until June 30, when he replaces Jeffrey. So right now there is 2 out of 7 with commercial fish backgrounds. The Board being “dominated”by commercial interests is not remotely accurate.

      • the whole process starts with the premise the last option is to restrict commercial harvest. if that doesn’t make the whole process, let alone the board, dominated by commercial interests, what does? where was the discussion of “sharing the burden of conservation” everyone heard about when the NPFMC reduced the harvest for halibut charters? there’s no sharing here. given the circumstances, one can argue this is the way it should be even if it does appear to violate state law. but there’s no doubt the process and along with it the board (no matter what board members might do to make a living) is dominated by commercial interest. it’s black and white.

      • Your assumption, Craig, about the board only restricting commercial fishing as a last resort is where you have “blundered” here. You, of all people, should know that a false assumption makes everything following it untrue.
        Our Fish Board has been restricting commercial harvest for as long as I remember, usually as an allocation of fish, but they are only involved when/if the management isn’t working for some reason. The Copper River management has been restricted (by the Board) to put more reds into the river (for personal use fishermen), as well as restricting gear-type and restricting the inside fishery for 30 years that I know of. Similar gear-type restrictions have been placed on CI fisheries, as well-these are to restrict certain commercial harvest IMO.

      • I see my comment from the 12th is still awaiting moderation, whatever that is.

        Craig to address your point about where is the sharing of conservation, the commercial fleet on the Copper has been getting more and more area and time taken from them in the name of conservation while other groups have had business as usual. Theoretically it hasn’t helped the returns as according to ADF&G it is getting worse. The fact of the matter is, they are using faulty data. At least as far as using the commercial catch to judge the run strength. They are comparing apples to hand grenades. They limit access to traditional grounds where the kings are mostly caught,then use the fact that they catch less kings as proof the run is low and use that to limit the commercial fleet even more.

        Another fact that is hard to ignore is, this king run is MUCH stronger than the prediction as apparent by the king catch in the first subsistence opener and the first commercial opener. This king run looks very strong.

        Another fact of the matter is, sports fishermen and dip netters should never have been shut out of the fishery preseason, the way they were. That was ridiculous. There was plenty of time to judge the run strength before those seasons opened and use an emergency closure if it was justified. This whole EMERGENCY was a farce. so is basing the whole season’s management on a pre season prediction.

        AQDF&G has egg on their face and I’m still waiting for them to admit they made a serious mistake.

  7. There are a couple things to consider before acting like the sky is falling. The first being, how accurate are these pre season run predictions? Actually, not very. ADF&G knows it. In fact they have a range so wide it’s ridiculous. That is so they can make themselves look somewhat competent when the run comes in somewhere in their projection range.

    Let’s start with their Prince William Sound pink salmon projection for this year. ADF&G is predicting a run of 21 million pinks. But their range is from 11 million to 30 million. Not exactly precise. In other words, if the run comes in at anywhere between 11 million and 30 million, they can still claim success. But the run would be managed very differently at 11 million than it would be at 20 million and even more differently if it came in at 30 million. The crux of the matter when it comes to managing at these different levels is the run needs to be managed in real time with real time information. This includes catch information. You can’t get that information with the fishery shut down.

    But let’s look at this year’s King prediction on the Copper River. They are predicting and basing management on 29,000 kings returning. But the projected range is 3,000 to 55,000. Let that sink in……. 3,000 would be an unmitigated disaster, 55,000 would be a decent run. There is no way of knowing which it is, 3,000, 29000, or 55,000 fish or even an other number without getting actual catch statistics, which you can’t get from a closed fishery. And closing the inside with no proof that the run is in danger sounds good if you “think” the run needs help, but if you close the waters where kings are traditionally caught, you really can’t judge the run strength by the number of kings caught. You are influencing the outcome of any in season projection in the worst way. Oh but you say, “if the run is in danger and any opener will endanger it”. I say, it’s a long season and kings enter the Copper from May 1 or break-up until July 1. One 12 hour opener used to judge run strength will not add to an already poor run. If the fish aren’t there you won’t catch them and you’ll get valuable information on how close your pre season projection is.

    And by the way, I’m not pro commercial and anti sport or personal use fishing. I am pro good management techniques and anti over reacting management. It’s a long season on the Copper and it’s too early for panic. Closing the Copper to sport king fishing and forbidding retention of kings in the personal use fishery is BS this early, without having a clue how many fish are actually coming back. There is no reason those measures couldn’t have been used later as run strength becomes apparent. All it does, closing things down pre season is to stir up hate and discontent between user groups when we all need to work together if there is an actual run disaster. We all want strong runs and fish in our freezers. Let’s make sure Fish and Game is actually managing, not over reacting.

  8. “If there are fish to sell.” Shortly after the Magnusen Act was passed in 1976, there was a Copper River Emergency. Didn’t anybody read Bill Egan’s Distressed Fishery List of in that Limited Entry Act, along with the many others? “1. This investigation was partially financed by the Anadromous Fish Conservation Act (P.L. 89-304, as ammedned), Project No. AFC-61…There was a slight increase in the number of dip net permits but a decrease in fishwheel permits issues in 1980, as well as a 6% decrease in the sockeye subsistence take compared to 1979…The Copper and Bering River districts remained closed during the 1980 season except for a closely managed quota chinook salmon catch of 8,434 fish out of a possible quota 10,000…”

  9. Looks like “the sky is falling” once again on the salmon fisheries of Alaska….Over-harvested from outside commercial interests, don’t worry….the shareholders of this global republic will just build a few more hatcheries and pump out some more GMO fish to balance the inequalities…remember that science trumps logic in the deep state of America.

      • Maybe not GMO yet here in Alaska, but Canada has pens off of our coast which could leak fish, and this article I will link to below refers to hatchery fish in Alaska as “enhanced”….it also states back in 2013 that 30% of Alaska Salmon were hatchery fish….this is changing the breeding dynamics of wild fish in ways current scientists do not yet fully understand.

      • “Fears of some state fisheries biologists that turning Prince William Sound into one big salmon ranch might threaten the remaining wild stocks there gained some weight this week. Oregon researchers reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that the genes of steelhead trout — a close relative — appear easily altered in a hatchery…”

        “Mark Christie, lead researcher on the work done at Oregon State University, painted a portrait of “evolution at warp speed” in the sterile, environmentally controlled trays of a hatchery.”

        “It’s similar to the process by which wolves were transformed into dogs,” he told MSNBC. “That’s all that’s occurring here, except it’s occurring at a really rapid time scale.”

  10. According to Bill Yankee, if the minimum escapement goal for Chinook is not going to be met, then it makes no sense to shut down the Copper River commercial fishery.

    But if the Copper River sockeye minimum escapement goal was not forecast to be met, then of course the Copper River commercial fishery would close.

    Perception is reality – not meeting the minimum escapement for sockeye salmon is a legitimate conservation concern whereby the commercial fishery will close, but not meeting minimum king goals is not a serious enough conservation concern to close the fishery that catches the most kings…

    That is the same commercial and management perspective across the whole state where during these times of historic low king salmon returns the in river fisheries will be closed or severely restricted to king harvests, but not the marine terminal fisheries, because that would not make any sense.

    Welcome to the best managed fisheries in the world.

    • Well Mavo, according to Fish and Game there is no emergency that minimum escapement goal for chinook is not going to be met. So……………………………….you’ve built quite the “strawman” there and then go on to attempt to make something out of it. Clearly, if and when such (emergency) occurs then management can and very well may shut down additional areas that are catching kings. The Yukon fishery is something entirely different and the Copper River Fishery has not used king salmon gear since the 90s so essentially very few king salmon are gilled. While releasing these kings would no doubt have losses, it would not be the same as attempting to release a gilled king IMO.
      Back in the early 80s the Copper River Fishery (one year) did not allow red gear in order to get minimum escapement of reds and only king gear was allowed and even then the fishery didn’t occur during low waters even to get all the reds up river. This was how the fishery proceeded, when king gear was allowed, and no closure of the fishery occurred but this would be more difficult with today’s fishery.
      Your idea of marine terminal fisheries not being severely restricted is not the case for this fishery, either. The entire inside fishery is closed during the early fishery when the kings are running-in case you don’t know what sort of restriction that is, I suggest you talk with some inside fishermen.

      • Um, check last year’s total run size for Copper River Chinook, last year’s final Chinook escapement, last year’s commercial harvest, and last year’s inriver Chinook restrictions.

      • Total king salmon Copper River escapement: 11,864

        Total commercial king harvest: 12,348

        Minimum in river escapement goal: 24,000

        Yep, data as straw man argument. Good one. You got me bigly.

        And yes, with the tremendous imprecision of the preseason forecast, meaningful commercial fish management would not allow commercial fishing inside the barrier islands, ever, or until the minimum king salmon goal was projected to be met.

    • Basically the management is to keep the inside fishery closed when the kings are there-that could change should king escapement warrant it. It is my opinion that this form of management makes much more sense than “closing the entire fishery!” The situation could warrant additional closures if kings are still targeted-this would be more difficult but there are a lot of kings harvested on the outside beaches (I know this from fishing Copper River for 25 years), if they are targeted. I suspect that the management wants every king through the counters until that minimum escapement figure for kings is assured but am unsure as to how the outside beaches will be managed.

  11. How would the king fishery be stopped without stopping the entire Copper River fishery???? That would make no sense IMO.

    Cook inlet has had their own problems and attempted to shut down the setnet fishery to preserve Kenai River kings, with no luck. There have been restrictions on those setnetters and Copper River has placed rather significant restrictions on the areas where kings are mostly caught (inside fishery closed). Further, I suspect the outside beach fishermen will be discouraged from fishing the beach to keep kings from their nets.

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