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[1] Spring Run Fizzles: Mysteries Of The Deep Deepen
[2] Reduced Spill Proposal Expected By Week's End
[3] Feds Keep All ESA Stocks Listed, But Upbeat About Future
[4] Hatchery Hysteria Dies Down Fast After Media Flap
[5] Judge Redden Gives Feds Till Nov. 30 To Complete New Hydro BiOp
[6] Nez Perce Tribe Settles Claim To Snake River Water
[7] Yikes Stripes! Live Zebra Mussels Show Up At Washington Border

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The spring chinook run on the upper Columbia River is turning out to be something of a disappointment, with only 170,000 fish counted at Bonneville Dam by the end of May, but it's still 30 percent above the 10-year average.

Harvest managers predicted a 360,000-fish return for 2004, based largely on the signal from last year's jack returns. That would have made it the second largest spring run since 1938. But managers have now downgraded the spring run to about 190,000 fish (estimated to river mouth) and are at a loss to explain what happened.

"Maybe it's time to find a new profession like weather forecasting," joked Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's Cindy LeFleur, who heads the technical committee that crunches the numbers. LeFleur said the group had no explanation for the declining numbers, so far. Age composition of the returning fish seemed normal, she said, with most upriver fish having spent the last two years in the ocean.

The latest revision is close to the pre-season expectation for the Snake River run alone. So far, about 60,000 chinook have actually been counted at Lower Granite Dam, about half of what was expected, says NOAA Fisheries' Jerry Harmon, who leads the crew that mans the adult fish trap at Granite, the last dam where fish pass before they enter Idaho.

"I don't have an answer," Harmon said, who noted that the more than 8,000 jacks (precocious males) counted last year would usually mean a much larger run would appear at the dam. He suggested that maybe the jack-to-adult ratio used by harvest prognosticators needs to be reworked. In earlier years, when hatcheries held juvenile chinook longer before release, more fish returned as jacks. "Bigger smolts--more jacks," he said. "Maybe that's happening again."

Harmon also noted about 20 percent to 30 percent of the returning chinook have evidence of marine mammal bites, as in years past. He said measurement of the teeth marks shows they were probably inflicted by harbor seals, not sea lions. "We never see sea lion bites," Harmon said. "I think they always get their prey."

Sea lions have taken some blame this year for reduced fish numbers, but Corps of Engineers biologist Robert Stansell thinks their effect is not as great as fishermen have said. Stansell estimated that the 100 or so sea lions around Bonneville Dam have eaten about 2 percent of the run passing by this spring. He couldn't estimate the salmon take from other sea lions in the estuary, with about 1,200 estimated to be hanging out near the mouth of the Columbia at Astoria before they head south to breed in California waters.

Others think sea lions, whose populations have been growing at 8 percent annually, are having a much greater effect. Oliver Waldman, executive of Salmon For All, a commercial fishermen's' advocacy group based in Astoria, points to gillnetter tales this spring of having whole nets stripped of salmon by sea lions. Waldman said a conservative estimate could peg the sea lion harvest of spring salmon at 50,000 fish.

However, some spring runs are coming in at numbers close to pre-season estimates, said WDFW's Joe Hymer. He pointed to returns in the Willamette, Cowlitz and the Lewis rivers as "performing as planned."

It's the upriver runs that seem to be behind, Hymer said, who noted those stocks migrate farther north and farther out into the North Pacific than the lower Columbia runs which generally stay close to the coast between the river and Vancouver Island.

This year's smelt run came in below expectations as well, Hymer said, which suggests something happened in the ocean to reduce overall productivity. There's some evidence that smelt populations that usually forage in offshore shrimp beds suffered compared to those that stay in the kelp beds around Vancouver Island, Hymer said. With fall chinook migrations generally inshore compared to springers, Hymer is still looking forward to a great fall chinook season. --Bill Rudolph


The Bonneville Power Administration's long-anticipated summer spill proposal for dams along the Columbia and Snake rivers should be ready by the end of the week, said BPA spokesman Ed Mosey. It’s expected to be considerably less ambitious than the draft floated Mar. 31 that was estimated to save ratepayers about $45 million a year, but could still save the region $25 million to $35 million a year.

BPA staffers have been scrambling to refine the offsets to increased fish mortality from the earlier proposal that calls for a three-year evaluation of a reduced spill effort at federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers. The work grew more frantic after a new analysis by NOAA Fisheries hydropower division staffers estimated more adverse impacts to listed fish from proposed spill reductions than earlier analyses had shown.

Things got even dicier after talks with Oregon and Washington about possible harvest reductions broke down. BPA had floated the idea of reducing the take of fall chinook by lower Columbia gillnetters to offset spill reductions. In return, the gillnetters would get cash payments and funding to develop more selective harvest opportunities for the fishers' spring chinook season, when prices for salmon are much higher. Talks included the possibility of using fish wheel technology to harvest marked hatchery fish while returning wild ESA-listed fish to the river.

By the end of last week, offset measures for both listed and non-listed species seemed to be closer to agreement, with NOAA Fisheries reportedly holding up a deal on Snake River fall chinook until more water for flow augmentation was obtained from Idaho. The agency also said it wasn't prepared to accept a beefed-up pikeminnow predation program as an offset for ESA fish, since the action was already included in the region's hydro BiOp. But it said the pikeminnow action could be used to offset impacts to non-listed species. BPA announced June 1 that it was offering more reward money for pikeminnow fishermen to reduce predation on non-listed salmon stocks.

A proposal to draft an extra 20 feet out of Dworshak Reservoir in September seemed to have little chance of success, but it was reported that BPA was negotiating with Idaho Power for an additional 100 KAF out of Brownlee Reservoir to improve flows and survival for ESA-listed fall chinook between July 7 to July 28. BPA didn't disclose the potential cost of the Brownlee proposal, but others said it was worth close to $5 million. Biological benefits were not disclosed, but Washington's fish agency had earlier estimated a one percent survival benefit for juveniles in the Snake.

However, early this week, the word on the river was that the Brownlee proposal was still being negotiated, with the likelihood of a proposal being released that focuses on an August no-spill scenario at only Bonneville and John Day dams.

BPA’s Mosey said the agency hopes to get an amended proposal out by the end of the week to allow for a few more days of public comment and off to BiOp remand judge James Redden by the end of the month “as a courtesy” to give the judge a whole month to study the amended proposal before it’s slated to begin.

Meanwhile, the Idaho Fish and Game Department applied for an incidental take permit for the state's spring chinook fishery on returning hatchery fish, which it estimated could kill up to 700 ESA-listed fish.

PNGC Power responded with a May 27 letter to NOAA Fisheries’ salmon recovery division that pointed out a “double standard” in play, since the state offered no mitigation for killing more ESA salmon. "While the proposal to reduce spill has been the subject of months of collaboration and is held to account for every last fish, the conditions catalogued within the application for Incidental Take include only vague references to monitoring and policing. -B. R.


Federal authorities proposed last week that all 26 current ESA listings for West Coast salmon and steelhead stocks remain protected, but were upbeat about their future prospects. The proposed determinations include an analysis of affected hatchery stocks using a new policy designed to satisfy a 2001 court decision.

The new policy calls for considering hatchery fish in ESUs if they are genetically similar to wild stocks, with the agency taking into account that some well-managed hatcheries are contributing to recovery of wild runs.

"Our work is paying off," said NOAA Fisheries' Northwest regional administrator Bob Lohn. He said recovery efforts and good ocean conditions have helped most stocks. Of the 18 ESUs for which they have good data, Lohn said 16 have made "substantial improvements." He said two other ESUs, Oregon coastal coho and mid-Columbia steelhead, are near recovery and may soon be considered for de-listing.

Sacramento River winter chinook and upper Columbia steelhead have shown enough improvement to be proposed for "threatened" status instead of their current spots in the "endangered" category. The agency also proposed to bump central California coho from "threatened" to "endangered" status and to list lower Columbia coho as "threatened."

Lohn was quick to point out that status determinations depend on abundance, productivity, genetic diversity and spatial distribution. He said hatchery numbers are no substitute for naturally spawning fish, and the recently leaked page from the proposed hatchery policy didn't tell the full story. Lohn said the agency feels that artificial propagation has both potential benefits and risks to wild populations.

But NOAA Fisheries may not have told the full story, either. Their proposed status updates do not include wild fish return data from 2002 and 2003, which, for most Northwest stocks were some of the highest in decades. The agency had earlier said it would include the updated figures to draft status reports completed in February 2003 before making any final determinations.

Conrad Lautenbacher, Under Secretary of Commerce, was on hand at Friday's press conference announcing the plan to emphasize the Bush administration's commitment to naturally spawning fish and their ecosystems, and the use of sound scientific principles like those developed in the Puget Sound hatchery reform effort. Lautenbacher, Lohn and others had visited the editorial boards of major Northwest newspapers the previous day to explain the new policy.

But some salmon groups took issue with the agency's proposals before they were released. Save Our Wild Salmon, Trout Unlimited, The National Wildlife Federation and others all panned the new policy, saying it lacked scientific credibility.

More legal battles seem a sure thing. Russell Brooks of the Pacific Legal Foundation, the group whose litigation led to the 2001 Hogan decision that forced NOAA Fisheries to change its hatchery policy, said the feds are running a shell game, instead of responding to the spirit of the ruling. He expected to sue the agency again when the policy becomes final, with a notice to sue letter out within a week. The agency will accept public comments for the next 90 days before settling on a final policy. -B. R.


The hysterical media reaction to the possibility that federal policymakers would count hatchery fish toward ESA recovery goals ebbed quickly after a top Commerce Department official said May 14 that only one salmon and steelhead population on the West Coast might be delisted.

But after hyping the potential of diluted ESA fish protections on the West Coast in recent stories, media giants like the Washington Post and The New York Times didn't even acknowledge the government's announcement, suggesting the media seriously overreacted to information in a document leaked to the press at the end of April (See NW Fishletter 179 .)

Conrad Lautenbacher, Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, and NOAA head, announced in a May 14 letter to Congress that the feds had "preliminarily determined" at least 25 of the 26 species under review will be proposed for relisting in the next two weeks. The lone run still in limbo was mid-Columbia steelhead.

The announcement had some stakeholders--like the Building Industry Association of Washington--fuming. "Bob Lohn [regional NOAA Fisheries administrator] has clearly lost control of his agency," said BIAW attorney Tim Harris, "and the inmates are running the asylum."

The BIAW was particularly rankled because it, along with some property rights advocates, had sued the feds to act on eight ESA petitions for delisting in the wake of a 2001 federal court ruling (the Hogan decision in Alsea Valley v. NMFS) that found NOAA Fisheries had erred by not giving hatchery fish the same ESA protection as wild fish in the same Evolutionarily Significant Unit. A Spokane judge recently gave the feds until the end of May to announce their findings. The feds had argued, to no avail, that they needed several more months to complete their new hatchery policy before they could act on the petitions.

But ever since an April 28 story in the Washington Post cited a "leaked" document that said the new federal policy was going to count hatchery fish, some conservation groups and Northwest politicians were quick to voice their disapproval. The Save Our Wild Salmon coalition began a congressional letter-writing campaign, noting that a recent science panel put together by the fish agency had said it was dangerous to include hatchery fish as part of an ESU.

In a March opinion piece in Science magazine, the panel said adding hatchery fish could open "the legal door to the possibility of maintaining a stock solely through hatcheries." The panel went to Science hoping to gain a wider audience for their message after they said the federal agency resisted its findings. They said hatcheries generally reduce fitness and inhibit future adaptation of natural populations, and that the legal definition of an ESU must be unambiguous--"Hatchery fish should not be included as part of an ESU," they said.

Washington senators Maria Cantwell (D), Patty Murray (D) and Rep. Norm Dicks (D) sent an April 30 letter to Commerce secretary Don Evans, asking for a copy of the new draft policy. They hinted strongly that potential fish delistings could dry up salmon funding and asked for an explanation of how the plan could affect future listings.

On May 5, Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski "denounced" the federal proposal, telling The Oregonian that it could bring an end to a decade of salmon restoration work.

However, in subsequent news accounts, federal officials, like Lohn and NOAA Fisheries inter-governmental program advisor Jim Lecky, said the new policy didn't mean that runs would be delisted, and that people were jumping to conclusions.

Those remarks got the BIAW to send a scathing letter to Lohn, accusing him of "pandering" to environmentalists, and calling the leaked document "suspicious" because it gave local editorial writers a chance to bash Bush administration policy. "Now you can wave these clips around and claim that Washington voters don't want salmon delisted," they told Lohn.

Commerce undersecretary Lautenbacher's presence first appeared in a letter to Northwest newspapers that was published May 12 in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, where he pointed out that his agency had to account for hatchery fish in a new way because of the 2001 court decision that ruled hatchery and wild salmon from the same group "had to be listed, or not listed, together."

"Lost in that intense debate that followed," wrote Lautenbacher, "was what the court didn't say: It didn't say one hatchery fish is the equivalent of one wild fish or that a listing determination is a mere numbers game. The real question is not how many fish a hatchery can add, but how it can, or cannot contribute to the overall recovery of the total population, including naturally spawning fish."

That same day, more heavy guns appeared in the op-ed war of words. In the Post-Intelligencer, Puget Sound politicians Ron Sims and Larry Phillips said since hatchery fish are "brewed in a tank, they don't imprint on home streams like wild fish do. Like an unleashed computer virus, once launched into the wild, hatchery fish travel freely to a variety of streams, bringing with them increased risks to wild fish."

A couple days later, The Seattle Times published a plea from Bill Ruckelshaus, chair of Washington state's salmon funding board. "The region's solution will include hatchery fish," Ruckelshaus said, "but let's not lose sight of the bigger picture." He said a shared strategy is crucial to "present a unified effort" to both the state and federal government for the actions and funding to keep the Puget Sound recovery effort going.

Lautenbacher's letter to Congress on the relistings was released the same day. "As our preliminary conclusions indicate, appropriate consideration of hatchery fish does not lead to a wholesale delisting of species as some are claiming. Equally erroneous," he said, "is the suggestion our policy would allow the purposes of the ESA to be satisfied by having all the salmon in a hatchery."

Senator Cantwell issued a wary response to Lautenbacher's missive. "This letter does not ease my concerns because the Administration still has not handed over the details of their new policy, like I asked. I remain very concerned about whether this policy is based on sound science or political expediency. My fear is this policy will derail our region's ongoing salmon recovery efforts and end up wasting time and taxpayers' money."

The feds' May 14 pre-announcement of the announcement had attorneys like Portland-based James Buchal predictably torqued. Buchal, who filed many of the delisting petitions for irrigators in the wake of the 2001 Hogan decision, said "this represents yet another colossal failure on the part of the Bush Administration to bring about rational administration of natural resources in the Pacific Northwest. The Bush appointees all seem to regard the editorial boards of know-nothing Northwest newspapers as the repository of the best available salmon science."

But Lautenbacher's latest letter wasn't even reported in either the Washington Post or The New York Times, where a story early this month suggested Bush appointee Mark Rutzick, an Oregon attorney with ties to the timber industry, as the main catalyst for promoting the policy to include hatchery fish. Rutzick now serves as a NMFS legal advisor.

Meanwhile, scientific debate over fitness issues between wild and hatchery fish will continue, and it may be more substantial than earlier reported. For instance, during the latest flurry of accusations and hyperbole, no one has reported on the fate of a March 2003 petition filed by a group of Northwest scientists that recommended the government should count hatchery fish along with wild stocks when it updated the status of listed ESUs.

The group circulated a white paper that said genetics arguments supporting wild fish were 'politicized' science.

Attorney Harris says the petition is simply being ignored by the feds, and their lack of firm deadlines lets them get away with it.

The pro-hatchery group of retired biologists claim that most criticism of hatchery salmon "is based on comparisons between divergent stocks of fish, which is not a true comparison between wild and hatchery fish from the same stock." The group also said these arguments are clouded by uncertainties, with too few well-designed studies to provide the hard data to test assumptions.

The group--including retired federal scientist Gary Wedemeyer, Jim Lannan, William McNeil, Don Amend, and Charlie Smith--circulated a white paper in 2001 on hatchery and wild salmon around the region that said genetics arguments supporting wild fish were "politicized" science. They pointed out that arguments over "fitness" are theoretical and ignore the fact that both hatchery and wild fish "are acted upon by the same evolutionary forces during the majority of their life cycle in the ocean."

NOAA Fisheries' Gorman said it seems likely that the Oregon coastal coho ESU, the species involved in the Hogan decision that provided the impetus for revising hatchery policies, may be delisted by next September if the state of Oregon assumes responsibility for protecting the stock. Since those coho are already listed under the state's own endangered species act, the shift seems likely to happen. -B. R.


Oregon District Court Judge James Redden has given NOAA Fisheries until Nov. 30 to rewrite the BiOp document he tossed out last year. Redden earlier gave the feds until June to complete the task, but a collaborative process currently underway among all parties led to the extension. One plaintiff, the National Wildfire Federation, had recommended considerably less time, hoping to cut short the new analysis that will drive the next BiOp.

The Justice Department filed a motion April 27 for more time, asking that the original June 2 deadline be extended until Nov. 30. Redden had granted a continuance during an April 16 meeting of the attorneys' steering committee, agreeing with all parties that more time was needed to allow for the continuing collaboration between federal scientists and state and tribal agencies over scientific issues he had ordered in the first place.

Plaintiffs, represented by Earthjustice attorney Todd True, recommended a Sept. 15 deadline for the final BiOp. It's no secret that True and others have been unhappy with the new direction of the BiOp analysis, which until recently the feds had characterized as "tentative." But at a recent meeting of collaborators, the feds said the new direction for analyzing dam effects on listed fish populations is definitely the way they will steer the next BiOp.

In a written order released on May 13, Redden said he was concerned that the remand process may have "diverged" from the intent and terms of the court's May 2003 order that found the BiOp was illegal because it relied on offsite mitigation activities that weren't reasonably certain to occur. That issue will be discussed at the next meeting of the remand steering committee, Redden said in his order.

The judge also expressed concern that the six-month extension might be futile because adequate funding to implement changes isn't yet in place, nor likely in the near future. Redden said he was aware that NOAA Fisheries' policies were "in flux" about counting hatchery fish and wanted the parties to address the possible ramifications of such policy changes. If it's still relevant when the committee meets on June 4, the judge wanted to discuss the annual spill issue as well.

True had argued that the shorter remand schedule "is reasonable and necessary to protect salmon," noting that the purpose of the remand wasn't "to allow NOAA Fisheries an extended opportunity to develop an entirely new approach to ESA consultation. Rather, True said, a shorter schedule would "allow the agency to correct BiOp shortcomings."

Plaintiffs said that NOAA Fisheries, which argued that the lengthy extension was needed "to consider and incorporate information from the co-managers' collaboration, hasn't showed that any such information exists or will even emerge from the collaboration."

But the judge wasn't buying True's argument or the plaintiffs' notion that "the longer the remand process continues without producing a revised biological opinion that accomplishes this goal, the longer salmon and steelhead will suffer under the legally and biologically inadequate status quo."

Meanwhile, the "collaboration" was scheduled to continue through May. The feds met May 13 with states and tribes to discuss their "reference" hydro operation that will serve as a basis to estimate fish survival from proposed operations.

The controversial new analysis includes dam operations in the environmental baseline for the new BiOp that the old BiOp did not. Since this is likely to reduce estimates of adverse impacts of hydro operations on listed stocks from the 2000 BiOp's analysis, plaintiffs have voiced opposition from the start.

The earlier BiOp found that proposed operations jeopardized the ESA-listed fish and could only be approved if 199 different actions were undertaken to boost survival throughout the system. It also called for many improvements to Columbia Basin habitat, hatchery operations and harvest management.

In another collaboration meeting last week, it was reported that state and tribal agencies still differed significantly with NOAA's recent revision of a scientific document that outlines the latest findings on dams and fish survival.

The feds' latest draft contains the same message the original draft reported, though delivered in a kinder, gentler way. It says the belief by the states and tribes in some kind of "delayed mortality" effect of dams and barges on fish is still mostly hypothetical, without much data to back it up, and is something that could be explained another way.

The feds prefer to use the term "latent mortality," and say that other factors like fish size and timing of ocean entry may account for differences in fish survival between transportation and in-river strategies. They said smaller fish tend to enter bypass systems at dams, which is a necessary route before barging, and could skew survival rates of transported and bypassed fish low, since smaller fish generally have lower survival rates than larger ones.

However, the feds said in the May 6 draft, "the recent return rates of wild fish implies that hydropower system-related latent mortality is not such an overwhelming force that it will prevent stocks from returning to abundances observed before the hydropower system was completed."

Dams do not play the biggest role in fish survival, the feds claim. "It is clear, though, that ocean conditions are the dominating factor in determining return rates, overriding variability associated with the hydropower system. Return rates have increased by an order of magnitude since the recent upturn in ocean conditions while survival through the hydropower system has remained relatively constant. Improvements in SARs, though, do not preclude the existence of hydropower system-related, latent mortality or a latent mortality/ocean condition interaction." -B. R.


The federal government, the state of Idaho and the Nez Perce Tribe announced a framework agreement to settle the tribe’s claim to instream flow rights in the Snake Basin to protect its treaty-based fishery, the largest issue remaining to be settled in the 20-year adjudication of Snake River water claims. The long process has been sorting out 150,000 water claims of the tribe, the state of Idaho, farmers, municipalities, hydro users and federal agencies. The tribal claim has been in mediation since 1998.

Terms include using 200,000 acre-feet of water in Dworshak reservoir to benefit ESA-listed species in the Snake, turning over the federally operated Kooskia hatchery to the Nez Perce, establishing a $50 million fund for the tribe to improve and restore fish habitat, and develop water resources and other agricultural projects. The parties will also agree on minimum flows for 174 rivers and streams.

Scattered parcels of federal land within the Nez Perce Reservation, valued at $7 million, will be transferred to the tribe, with the total federal share of the settlement pegged at $193 million over the next 30 years.

The settlement also calls for the state of Idaho to extend provisions in its water law to allow the Bureau of Reclamation to lease up to 427,000 acre-feet from water banks for augmenting flows in the Snake River. -B. R.


Tiny terrorists have been caught hitching a ride into Washington state on the bottom of a 38-foot boat being hauled by truck to the coast from Tennessee. A bunch of zebra mussels was spotted May 11 on the boat, which was stopped at a weighing station on the Idaho-Washington border.

Zebra Muissels
Mussels showed their stripes at the California border, too.

WDFW’s Pam Meacham said the live nearly inch-long mussels were found under the vessel’s trim tabs, which is a common spot to find them because of the difficulty cleaning that part of a vessel when it’s hauled out. The boat was sent to a decontamination site in Bellingham. Meacham said inspectors have found mussels a couple of times on boats entering the state by truck.

The mussels, classified as an invasive species, have caused millions of dollars in damages on the East Coast, where they were detected first in 1986, probably introduced from Europe into the Great Lakes via ballast water from a commercial ship. They thrive in small-diameter water pipes where they become so prolific they can clog cooling systems on boats, water supplies and hydro facilities.

Though several other boats entering West Coast states have been found harboring zebra mussels, so far, they haven't taken up residence, but are still concentrated in watersheds east of the Continental Divide.

State, federal and Canadian provincial agencies have launched a group effort to keep the mussels east of the 100th Meridian. But the creatures are getting close. Zebra mussel larvae have been found below a Missouri River dam on the South Dakota-Nebraska border.

In the Great Lakes, they have taken over whole bays, where their filtering action used to gain nourishment has cleaned local waters too much for other animals to survive.

Once the zebra mussel was classified as an aquatic nuisance, border stations beefed up inspections of boats being hauled West. "Unfortunately, smaller boats don't have to stop at commercial ports like this one did," said WDFW fish cop Mike Whorton.

In 1997, Bonneville Power Administration biologists said the mussels would love to colonize the smolt bypass systems at Columbia River dams, where low flows and small pipes make for their perfect habitat. Extended length screens in front of turbines would be another likely spot for colonization.

At a conference in Portland that March, West Coast scientists were told by their Eastern counterparts they had better take steps to prepare for the invasion. BPA biologist Scott Bettin said that more turbines will have to be built at dams so some can be shut down for cleaning without disrupting power production. The costs could add up to more than $1 billion to prepare for the invasion, Bettin said at the time.

Since then, scientists have found the mussels can colonize sandy and muddy lake bottoms, such as Lake Erie near where Canadian utility Ontario Hydro has battled the little creatures for years. The utility now uses chlorine in raw water systems to keep pipes free of the mussels, whose colonies have been known to reach densities up 750,000 mussels per square meter. -B. R.

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