Tribal Elders Contemplate Melting Arctic Sea Ice

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Cover Courtesy Seven Stories Press
In “Arctic Voices” (Seven Stories Press, 2012), Subhankar Banerjee brings together first-person narratives from more than thirty prominent activists, writers and researchers who address issues of climate change, resource war and human rights within and around Arctic Alaska.

Arctic Alaska has quickly become the most contested land in recent U.S. history. It’s home to vast natural resources and a precariously balanced–and highly threatened–ecosystem. In this excerpt from the collection Arctic Voices (Seven Stories Press, 2012), writer Nancy Lord gives an account of a gathering of Yup’ik Elders facing the troubles of thinning ice in the Bering Sea.

In a conference room in Bethel, Alaska, twenty-some Yup’ik Elders from surrounding Bering Sea villages bent their heads over three tables spread with maps. The maps were the result of earlier interviews with these Elders and many others, about their subsistence uses and the habitats important to the fish and animals–walrus, seals, ducks, and beluga whales–on which their families and cultures relied. The Elders, members of the Bering Sea Elders Advisory Group, were checking the maps to see if they agreed with the lines that were drawn, and they were marking more detailed information about the times animals were in particular places, the conditions in which they hunted in different places, and the numbers of animals they had seen in different years.

The Elders were from small-dot places like Kwigillingok, Quinhagak, Mekoryuk, Toksook Bay, and Kipnuk, and they talked together about changes they had seen. Most had long histories of hunting and fishing in the Bering Sea, going back to the time of kayaks and harpoons and knowing how to navigate by reading the ocean currents. They had been told how things were by their own Elders.

At the table with the seal map, the men talked about ice thickness and the danger of hunting on ice that’s too thin. In an area they marked for a lot of bearded seals, they noted that, in their experience over many years, the ice is usually thick enough by the end of November. “We stay home when it’s not safe,” a white-haired man said. Someone else said, “We used to tell the weather by the ice. Now we can’t.”

The table’s scribe asked, “How do you tell the weather now?”

“TV,” someone said, and they all laughed.

At another table, David Bill, chairman of the group, tapped his finger on a portion of the fish map. The Elders there were talking about their subsistence catches of salmon and whitefish–anadromous species that live in the Bering Sea and travel up the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers. A couple of important lines were drawn on all the maps. One cutting through the Bering Sea was the International Date Line, dividing US waters from those of Russia. The other, extending from the south end of Kuskokwim Bay in jagged steps around Nunivak Island and then west around St. Matthew Island before straightening north to intercept the date line, the Elders referred to as “the northern boundary.” Above the line, put into effect in 2007 as a precautionary interim measure, bottom trawlers shall not go. Even as the Bering Sea warms and fish and ice coverage both move northward, the trawlers–those boats that drag big nets weighted with chains and tires across the ocean floor–may not, for now, follow them.

The line up to which trawling was allowed was already as close as fourteen miles to some of the communities from which the men and women in the room had come, and places they’d marked for their fishing and hunting were in some of those same waters.

The ice is different now, the men with the walrus map were saying. Sometimes the winds blow it farther south, but then it goes out faster in the spring. It’s thinner. The ice edge–that’s where everything feeds, where they hunt–is different; it’s hard to know where it will be and how it will move. They have to travel farther to get to the walrus. That takes more fuel, and they don’t know the area as well. It’s more dangerous.

In 2011, the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, responsible for most fisheries in Alaska’s federal waters, was to reconsider the northern boundary, and bottom trawlers might be allowed to follow the fish northward, into waters they haven’t previously fished. Those same waters are home to ice-dependent sea mammals like walrus and seals, crabs, threatened species like the spectacled eider, and the Yup’ik, Iñupiaq, and Siberian Yup’ik people who depend in profound ways upon the health and bounty of the northern Bering Sea.

First, though, a large area above the line–called the Northern Bering Sea Research Area–is supposed to have a “research plan.” The plan is primarily meant for research into the potential impacts of trawling on bottom habitat, but it is also meant to provide some protection for vulnerable species along with the subsistence needs of the people.

Over at the first table, the woman acting as a facilitator rolled up the maps the group was finished with and laid out another one. “This is a science map,” Dorothy Childers explained, making clear the difference between the maps generated from local and traditional knowledge and this new one, which had come from scientific data. “The science maps show where the animals are when you’re not hunting them.” The particular map was of Alaska’s four species of eiders, sea ducks that nest on land but winter at sea. The men studied the map with interest, locating uninhabited St. Matthew Island far to the northwest and placing their hands on the circular shape marking the winter habitat of spectacled eiders. That part of the ocean was far from anywhere they knew and in winter well beyond the travels of any Native people.

Who would have thought that frozen place would also be home to such life? It wasn’t until 1995 that researchers tracked a transmitter implanted in a spectacled eider to discover the wintering ground of that species. A flyover and subsequent research confirmed that the entire world’s population–some 360,000 spectacled eiders–winter in open-water leads in the otherwise frozen Bering Sea, and in those leads dive to the bottom to feed on clams. Childers set a photo of one of these polynya (Russian for “little field”) areas beside the map; the thousands of birds squeezed into it looked like grains of brown sand filling a crack in an otherwise vast expanse of white.

“This needs to be protected,” the Elders told Childers. “Let the fish and the rest grow out there.”

Childers wrote that down.

“We rely on the sea for subsistence,” someone said. “All the sea. We need to take care of it.”

It is true that the Bering Sea, that semi-enclosed part of the Pacific Ocean that extends from Alaska to Russia and the Aleutian Islands to the strait also named for explorer Vitus Bering, can be a ferocious place in winter, when the crab fisheries take place, and that boats go down and men die on a regular basis there. It is also true that the Bering Sea, because of physical properties including its broad continental shelf and general shallowness, the movements of currents and ice, and upwellings, is a prodigiously rich biological basin, one of the most productive environments in the world. Its biodiversity is profound: more than 450 species of fish, crustaceans, and mollusks; 50 species of birds including 20 million individual seabirds; and 25 species of marine mammals including the world’s rarest whale, the North Pacific right whale.

The Bering Sea’s great bounty has supported people who’ve lived on and around it for a very long time–“from time immemorial,” as the Natives say. On the American side lie sixty-five communities, home to 27,500 people. Although this human population is small, the villages that line the coast–on the Russian side as well as the American–today remain intricately connected to all aspects of Bering Sea weather, seasons, and nourishment in all its forms. This part of Alaska was late to be influenced by the trappers, traders, and outside interests of all kinds, and it maintains more cultural intactness–including language and traditional foods–than much of the rest of Alaska, where cultural change came earlier and hard.

For those in the Bethel conference room, the Bering Sea is home, the center of their universe, their gardens and breadbaskets, the place of their ancestors, back to the beginning. One Elder said to me, “It’s not the Bering Sea. That’s the name from a newcomer. It’s Imarpik.” Imarpik translates literally to “big container,” identifying the sea as a big bowl, full of resources. Less literally it refers to the one ocean that means everything. The Elders spoke of their own Elders, and what they had instructed. “My grandmother told me, ‘you will protect the Bering Sea.’ When you talk about the Bering Sea, you’re talking about me.”

Today, though, the Bering Sea also feeds the world. The fish and shellfish catches on its American side make up almost half (by weight) of all fisheries production in US waters. Dutch Harbor on its southern edge has ranked number one among US fishing ports nearly every year since 1981. In the beginning, king crab was king. Now the largest catches belong to the trawl fleets. The midwater trawl fleet fishes over deep water to catch enormous schools of pollock, and the separate bottom trawl fleet sweeps up groundfish on the continental shelf. In both cases huge cone-shaped nets sweep up everything in their paths, and in both cases there are environmental consequences. The midwater trawls catch tons of “nontarget” species, including salmon intended for subsistence and commercial fisheries elsewhere. The bottom trawls tear up the sea bottom–toppling corals, overturning rocks, busting apart crabs, scraping up the sediments that are home to the clams and worms that other creatures eat.

In the regional center of Bethel, forty miles up the Kuskokwim River from the Bering Sea, the Elders who gathered to document their resource use knew about trawling, and they didn’t like it. Many had been involved in efforts to “cap” the pollock fleet’s bycatch–to make them stop fishing when they’ve caught too many salmon. They don’t want the bottom trawlers to go any farther north; in fact, they would like to see them confined to a smaller area than they already fish. They want them to leave the bottom of the Bering Sea alone, in the wholeness that provides the habitat and food for so much else.

These men might have lived subsistence lives, more familiar with hunting gear and judging ice and weather than with the teachings of Western education, but they were no slouches when it came to organizing and participating in modern governance systems. They knew the laws that affect how they live, and they knew the strength they bring, through tribal rights and their own citizenship, to influencing regulations and the decisions of government agencies. In addition to chairing the advisory group, David Bill, who lives in the village of Toksook Bay, served on a subsistence halibut board created by the National Marine Fisheries Service, the board of the nonprofit Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association, and his local school board. Interpreter Fred Phillip was a leader in his own right; the natural resources director for the Native village of Kwigillingok, he has also served on many organizational boards and traveled dozens of times to Washington, DC to represent the interests of his people before Congress.

Outside, the temperature was at zero, and the November sun skidded low across a pale blue sky. Snow machines zipped along the frozen Kuskokwim River, and taxis (five dollars to anywhere in town) plied the icy roads. A thin snow cover was just enough to brighten the landscape: no trees but the wooden buildings squatting on pilings. Smoke drifted sideways from a few stovepipes, evidence of shifts away from expensive heating oil to the burning of wood pallets and cardboard. There was talk of importing firewood from the forests of southeast Alaska.

The Elders understood why they had come to Bethel, and each of the three days they were seated at the tables, ready to work, well in advance of starting times. They stayed in those seats for hours, more attentive than any meetinggoers I’ve seen in my life. Now and then a cell phone rang and one reached into a pocket to hold a brief and muffled conversation.

The participants knew that they had until 2011 to influence where the bottom trawlers go and to make their case for protecting the subsistence use that lies at the heart of their lives and culture. They knew that they couldn’t just say, “We want to protect as much as possible of the sea that provides for us” and expect the rightness of that principle to prevail over the tremendous economic value of all those fish that might be caught if bottom trawling was allowed to follow the climate shift north. They would need to identify, in a way that resource managers and policy makers could understand and quantify, exactly what areas they and the animals depended upon for their lives. They would have to present a concrete proposal–data–that said, this is the value here and here and here, and this is the reason this area–this exact piece of Imarpik–should be protected. What was once a wholeness already had lines drawn across it; they had to participate in the system that would further divide up the big container. The scientists knew science, but only they–the Elders–held the wealth of generational knowledge about the animals and what they ate, the seasonal cycles, the way water and ice moved, and how things changed over time, all those interwoven aspects scientists called an ecosystem. And only they were looking out for the needs of their people and the future generations.

For years they’d been speaking out about the changes they’ve seen in and around the Bering Sea. They’d watched Arctic sea ice form later and retreat earlier and faster. They’d witnessed surprising storm patterns, different movements of fish and marine mammals, new species showing up, sudden die-offs of seabirds, unusual plankton blooms, and other environmental oddities beyond their usual experience or what they had learned from their parents and grandparents to expect as “normal.” They’re well aware that, as rich as the Bering Sea is, its productivity is less than it used to be. They’ve seen steep declines in species of marine mammals, birds, and fish. They’ve caught smaller salmon and mammals with thinner fat layers.

In my own travels through the Bering Sea, in the four years I worked on adventure cruise ships and stopped in villages all the way to Russia, I heard repeated concerns about the difficulty in predicting weather or anticipating storms, about decreasing numbers of fur seals at the Pribilof Islands and evidence that the young animals were starving on the rookeries, about kittiwakes failing to lay eggs, and watched thousands of walrus hauled out on a single rocky beach. I also heard about the hunting party–with children–that drowned when their boat overturned in a storm. Scientists now were documenting the same changes local people had been reporting for years. They spoke of ecosystem stress and nutritional stress, of “regime change.” They studied ice and the relationship of ice to productivity. Regular surveys had shown that forty-five fish species had shifted their ranges northward. Research into predator species like seals, whales, and some species of seabirds showed they were altering their diets and sometimes traveling greater distances to find food. “Grabs” of the sea floor from research vessels were finding fewer clams and other benthic species.

Due to its remoteness, size, and often fierce weather, it has always been a challenge to conduct scientific research in the Bering Sea. If the science had lagged what local people observed, mounting data supported the need for a new approach to fisheries management. The old method had centered on single species; survey the “biomass” (how much of the species was out there) and then allow for a percentage take each year, based on what was guessed to be a “maximum sustainable yield.” In other words, fish those commercial species as hard as possible without depleting them. Conservation organizations had begun hammering on the need to consider the entire ecosystem and be precautionary. They argued that fishery managers should look beyond the population numbers of commercial species and calculations of sustainable catches. In this new world, managers need to be able to predict population trends in a rapidly changing environment and factor in a new degree of environmental variability. In light of so much uncertainty, they need to manage conservatively, to carefully track trends, and to identify and protect ecologically important areas under stress from climate change. They need to do all this against the pressure of a high-stakes fishing industry that wants to catch as much “product” as can be justified.

And thus it was that tribes from the Bering Sea region, with a number of conservation organizations, in 2007 won that rare victory at the industry dominated North Pacific Fisheries Management Council. The Council unanimously agreed that as-yet-unexploited portions of the northern Bering Sea should be at least temporarily protected from an expansion of industrial fishing. The managers noted specifically that rising temperatures could result in a redistribution of fishery resources into and within northern waters and that they bore a responsibility for making sure that, before fisheries were allowed to expand, adequate protections would be in place for marine mammals, crabs, animals listed under the Endangered Species Act, and subsistence resources depended upon by local people.

In the Bering Sea, it’s all about the ice. That puts it too simply, of course, but Native people and scientists know that ice plays an essential role in the life of the Bering Sea, just as it does in the Arctic Ocean. Sea ice is, of course, the habitat of species like seals and walrus. Algae grow upon it, in turn feeding species that live under the ice and at the ice edge. The formation, movement, and melting of ice affect not just the sea’s biological productivity but ocean currents and the exchange of heat between ocean and atmosphere, in an enormously complex system.

From temperature-related research, we now know this: since 1950, the ice cover in the Bering Sea has decreased. We also know that, since 1980, water temperatures in the Bering Sea have increased by about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit. A poster I studied in the basement of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Kodiak showed the relationship between ice cover and the catch of opilio (Chionoecetes opilio) crab; the more ice, the more crab. It also showed the southern Bering Sea “cold pool”–an area of cold bottom water on the continental shelf, formed under ice–contracting and moving northward by 143 miles since 1982. The text read, “As cold bottom water moves north, Arctic species (like opilio crab) are lost from the southern Bering Sea.”

The evidence–experiential and scientific–of a rich Bering Sea becoming less rich is backed by some decades-long data. One study of chum salmon weights since the 1960s showed a steady decline in size, indicating they were getting less to eat. In 2000 an analysis of carbon isotopes in historic samples of whale baleen suggested a 30-40 percent decline in average seasonal primary production since 1970. “Primary production” is, essentially, phytoplankton (those microscopic, free-floating, photosynthesizing organisms at the base of the food chain), which feed everything above it.

This is what we know about phytoplankton production: It is generally controlled by sunlight and available nutrients, but in the Bering Sea it has also depended on seasonal sea ice. When the ice melts in spring, the influx of water with lower salinity encourages a “bloom” of phytoplankton. And, the ice itself supports the bloom with the sea algae that grow on it. Change the ice coverage and the timing of the melt and you change the size, timing, and the species makeup of the phytoplankton bloom.

The Bering Sea has changed, in my lifetime, from a primarily cold Arctic ecosystem dominated by sea ice to sub-Arctic conditions. There are winners and losers as the result of this change. When there was more sea ice and it melted in the spring, the resulting bloom occurred before there were many zooplankton (mostly microscopic animals) to feed on it, and it tended to fall to the sea bottom and feed species that live there. The lack of Arctic sea ice results in a later (and smaller) bloom, which gets eaten by the zooplankton and other species in the higher parts of the water column before it can fall to the bottom. Thus, to mention just two commercial fish species, the biomass of pollock has in recent years increased dramatically (despite heavy fishing) and the flatfish known as Greenland turbot, which lives close to the bottom and likes cold water, has declined in equally dramatic measure. The very rich benthic (bottom dwelling) communities of worms, clams, and crustaceans–upon which gray whales, walrus, diving birds, and other bottom feeders depend–are less rich than they so recently were.

Scientists also worry about the mismatch of prey availability and predator needs. A later phytoplankton bloom prolongs the winter hunger period of fish and shellfish; many won’t survive their juvenile stages. Meanwhile, warmer ocean temperatures may cause some species to reproduce earlier, before foods they need are available. Studies of phenology (the interactions between the yearly life cycle of a species and the yearly climate cycle) have shown that most species, around the globe, are advancing their breeding, hatching, budding, and migrating times. In a California study the common murre (a diving bird that eats mostly small fish and zooplankton) was found to be breeding a remarkable two months earlier in 2000 than in 1975.

The loss of ice in the Bering Sea is likely to have additional effects. More open water in winter may add to the severity of rough seas and increase the mortality of birds at sea. Warmer water requires cold-blooded fish to increase their metabolism, which requires more food; this is a particular problem for young fish, which rely on fat reserves to get through their first winter.

Bearing Sea Ecosystem Vital to the World

On the first day at the Bering Sea Elders’ gathering, the group listened (via its translator) to a presentation by Tom Van Pelt, the program manager for the North Pacific Research Board (NPRB), about the science that organization funds. One of the NPRB’s primary programs is specific to the Bering Sea– an integrated ecosystem research program to look at, among other things, changing ice and currents, food availability, and how those changes cascade through the whole system. The idea, Van Pelt said, is for the one hundred scientists working on specific projects to think beyond their particular projects and disciplines and try to gain a larger understanding of how all things relate and interact. After three years of field seasons, two years (2011-12) would be given to synthesizing the results.

I thought I detected in the room a certain amount of puzzlement: Were the scientists only coming to realize, at this late date, that all things were connected?

There were questions following the science presentation, and they were all about the effects of bottom trawling on the ocean floor and the bycatch caught in trawlers’ nets. These were not parts of the NPRB’s program, and Van Pelt could only say that he wasn’t the right person to ask about those specifics. The science currently being conducted is more basic to the workings of the Bering Sea, though I knew the scientists would agree that maximum sharing of information–science, traditional knowledge, the effects of fishing and other activities–would be a good thing, something to work toward for the holistic understanding they sought.

The Elders’ immediate concern about trawling was whether areas for bottom trawling would be expanded in the Bering Sea, but they also expressed alarm about the amount of pollock fishing taking place in deeper waters–and the bycatch from that fishery.

The most valuable fish (considering volume) in Alaska and the world’s most abundant food fish is one that most Americans wouldn’t recognize and may never have even heard of. Alaska pollock or walleye pollock (Theragrachalcogramma), a North Pacific member of the cod family, is a modest-looking, one- or two-pound, speckled fish with a lot of fin area, top and bottom. Landings of pollock from the Bering Sea are the largest of any single fish species in the United States, some 2.5 billion pounds a year, valued at hundreds of millions of dollars. On an individual basis, pollock is a low-value fish; with its white flesh and mild taste, it ends up not in fish markets or fancy restaurants but made into fish sticks, fast-food fish fillets, and artificial crabmeat. Since the late 1970s, as a result of changes in the Bering Sea, pollock have done very well; only recently have their numbers begun to drop and catches been reduced.

What both fishermen and scientists have found is that pollock are indeed moving northward. Generally, pollock spawn each winter in the southern Bering Sea, near the Aleutian Islands, then follow their food (plankton and small fish) north as waters warm in the spring. The bulk of them, following the outer contour of the continental shelf, now migrate to and beyond the international border with Russia. In effect, Alaska’s pollock are becoming Russian pollock.

Andrew Rosenberg, a former deputy director of the National Marine Fisheries Service, was quoted in the Los Angeles Times in 2008: “It [the northward pollock movement] will be a food security issue and has an enormous potential for political upheaval.” He expected that pollock would be a test case in a growing pattern of fish driven by climate change across jurisdictional borders.

Once in Russian waters, the pollock are caught by Russian fishermen in a poorly managed, probably overexploited fishery that’s known to be plagued by lax enforcement and poaching. Catches there have been increasing as the Alaskan catches have been throttled back to stay at sustainable levels.

Pollock is just one of the species moving north in the Bering Sea, but because of its enormous economic value, it has gotten serious attention. Twenty-five years of scientific surveys have shown that dozens of other fish species are also shifting to the north. The range shift–thirty miles for pollock, thirty-four for halibut, fifty-five for opilio crab–is occurring two or three times faster than that of terrestrial species. According to the scientists, these species appear to be shifting in response to the extent of seasonal ice, itself moving northward and correlated to climate change.

As vital as the Bering Sea is for the men and women meeting in Bethel, the climate-change-induced threats we see there extend far beyond Alaska’s shores. It’s not just the Bering Sea’s rich ecosystem that’s at stake; it’s the life support systems that the Bering Sea influences and the entire world needs.

Warming Circulation and Ocean Climate Change

If we know little about the effects of global warming on the Bering Sea, we know barely more about those effects on any of the oceans–which cover three-quarters of our earth and house 90 percent of the planet’s biomass. Compared to land, oceans have been inadequately studied; everywhere, ocean research is difficult, resource-intensive, and expensive. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for example, gave little attention to the marine system.

Consider: ocean temperatures may be a better indicator of global warming than air temperatures, because the ocean stores more heat (90 percent of the heat in the earth’s climate system) and responds more slowly to change. Recent studies suggest the ocean is warming 50 percent faster than the IPCC reported in 2007 (and that thermal expansion rates and sea level rise were thus also underestimated by a similar amount). The next IPCC report is expected to give greater attention to ocean science, including the uncertainties in understanding and modeling climate change because of deficiencies in the knowledge base.

What we do know at this point is “big picture”–global warming affects ocean temperatures, the supply of nutrients that enter the ocean from the land, ocean chemistry, marine food webs, wind systems, ocean currents, the volume of ocean water, and extreme events such as hurricanes. The ecological responses to these are already playing out in processes ranging from primary production (where all the eating begins) to biogeography (where organisms live) to evolution.

Considerable attention has been given to the effect of warming on thermohaline (thermo as in temperature and haline as in salt content) circulation (also known as the ocean conveyor belt), which is what moves both energy and material around the world and thus has a huge influence on climate. Most of that attention has gone to the possibility of the slowing, or even shutdown, of the North Atlantic “conveyor.” In the North Atlantic, pools of cold, dense water sink, pulling warm surface waters north from the tropics. With warming and the addition of freshwater from the melt of glaciers and the Greenland ice cap, the sinking of cold water has lessened in recent years. A map of the path of the thermohaline circulation looks somewhat like a picture of the human body’s blood circulation; blue lines mark the deepwater currents, red the surface currents, and they all tie in and keep moving. The oldest waters, with a transit time of some sixteen hundred years, end up in the North Pacific, finally in the Bering Sea. Clearly, if that first deepwater formation in the North Atlantic quits on us, the entire ocean circulation will be altered–kind of like your heart stopping.

There are many other implications of climate change for our oceans, poorly understood at present. A warmer ocean will hold less oxygen, for one thing. A warmer ocean will increase stratification, potentially locking nutrients away from those who need them. A warmer ocean with less ice appears to be freeing up mercury and other pollutants, raising contaminant levels throughout the food web and accumulating at the top, in marine mammals and those who eat them. A warmer ocean already appears, in the Arctic, to be releasing methane clathrate (hydrate) compounds–large frozen methane deposits that lie mostly under sediments on the ocean floor, though some also underlie permafrost on land. Methane is roughly twenty times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The carbon in these frozen deposits is thought to exceed that in all other fossil fuels on earth combined. There is strong evidence that runaway methane clathrate release may have caused major alterations of the ocean environment and earth’s atmosphere on a number of occasions in the past, most notably in connection with the Permian-Triassic extinction event (the Great Dying) 251 million years ago. At that time 70 percent of terrestrial vertebrate species went extinct.

In June 2011 the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council asked that the research plan being developed for the northern Bering Sea be expanded to include additional information about the ecosystem and effects of trawling, to identify species and habitats that might be of interest to the commercial fishing industry, and to give additional consideration to input from the affected coastal communities. The Bering Sea Elders Advisory Group continues its participation in the process.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Arctic Voices, edited by Subhankar Banerjee, published by Seven Stories Press, 2012.

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