The Texas Oyster Industry Is Now a Shell of Its Former Self

Texas oyster reefs are under threat, and so are local fishermen’s livelihoods and way of life.

By Gwendolyn Knapp April 24, 2018 Published in the May 2018 issue of Houstonia Magazine

It’s the first day of Texas oyster season, and Galveston Bay is packed with so many boats that 33-year-old Captain Joaquin Padilla decides to post a video of them on Facebook, adding a side-eye emoji as comment. Padilla has been on the water with his little crew since sunup, steering his boat, the Miss Kosovare, in languid circles, dragging his dredge—a chain and metal basket about the size of a basking shark’s mouth—over the oyster reefs below. His is one of about 150 trawlers out this November day, harvesting bivalves from the limited wild reefs on the bottom of Galveston Bay, right in Houston’s backyard.

Out on the water, Padilla sticks with a smaller group of about ten boats that all belong to his buddies and family—his father, uncle, brother-in-law, and cousins all make a living oystering, too. Two of his friends, a pair of brothers—one in rubber overalls, the other in jeans—are working as his deckhands, pulling in the dredge and culling through hundreds of oysters as they crash onto the stainless-steel table before them.

Hammers in hand, the brothers clean and sort oysters more quickly than a droid could, loading their haul into giant pails on one end of the table, while pushing the undersized and dead ones back out into the water off the other. It’s arduous work—muddy, sweaty, and noisy from the diesel engine and the dredge’s clinking chain. 

By 9 a.m. the Miss Kosovare has bagged the state-mandated 30-sack catch limit. Almost everybody on the water has. It’s easy enough work, not even late enough for the wind to come up and churn the bay to chocolate milk. Tejano music blasts from the deck on the ride back in to Prestige Oysters, where Padilla works. But there’s talk back on the docks. The fishermen are worried about the future. They know they have a rough season ahead.

They know the state, charged with protecting the threatened, finite resource that is our public reefs, has opened only 14 of the 34 shellfish classification areas along the Texas coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, which has reduced the oyster population significantly. East Galveston Bay, a huge area where 150 boats typically could work for six months easy, has lost practically every single oyster.

This morning they’ve been fishing what the state calls TX 7, a portion of Galveston Bay that is, for the moment, full of market-sized oysters. But 150 boats on a two-by-two-mile stretch of water, not all of which is covered in oyster reef, is a lot of boats. How long the open sections will be able to provide three-inch oysters—the legal size for harvestable specimens in public waters during public season, which runs from November 1 to April 30—is anybody’s guess.

For some weeks, the oystermen’s luck holds. Even with fewer areas open, Padilla and his team consistently pull in their daily limit of bags, and with demand peaking over the holidays, money keeps rolling in. Fishing Monday through Friday in TX 7, Padilla is making about $1,500 a week. Relieved, he gets his three sons iPhones for Christmas and springs for the pricey makeup on his 16-year-old daughter’s wish list.

It doesn’t last. January brings ice storms and freezing weather. The reefs in TX 7 start to show major signs of strain from all the holiday demand. Nevertheless, Padilla, clad in sweats under his fishing overalls, has no choice but to go out. Ice freezes to the boat, to his face, in his boots. After working long days in TX 7, he and his team can’t make close to 30 sacks a day anymore. His income dips to just $750 a week; his deckhands’ to $300. The brothers tell Padilla they’ll have to quit if the situation goes on much longer. As the days drag on, Padilla’s crew has to hustle to bring in even 15 bags of oysters.

Once again, they and the rest of the state’s oystermen are caught in an all-too-familiar struggle to harvest legal-sized bivalves amid a dwindling supply, which has marred each six-month oystering season for the past decade. Well before the season ends, they know, the oysters will run out entirely, the result of various factors, including a litany of natural disasters, only the latest of which was Harvey.

The oystermen believe part of the problem is mismanagement on the part of the state: Texas, they say, is opening and closing the wrong areas, although officials dispute that. Through mid-February, TX 7 remains open, while other areas around Galveston Bay are closed, a decision Padilla disagrees with. “The state should’ve closed TX 7 by Christmas,” he tells us later, “to let those little bitty oysters grow out, but they waited.”

Inevitably, some boats begin eyeballing a closed area in the bay, TX 5. The oystermen maintain that there’s no reason to keep it closed, that there are plenty of good bivalves in those waters.

The pressures are getting to a lot of the guys, Padilla explains. Fishermen are a tightknit, self-policing community, but only to an extent. Sometimes, the need to make a living supersedes the need to follow the rules. Padilla tells his buddies to stay out of the closed sections until the game wardens choose to open them. If they don’t listen, well, they don’t listen.

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When Padilla was a little boy growing up in Dickinson, his uncle bought an oyster boat from Johnny and Lisa Halili of Prestige Oysters. At age 14 Padilla asked his uncle if he could come along on the weekends to help out and make some money—a typical high schooler with an atypical job. By age 18 he was driving a boat for the Halilis and starting a family with his high school sweetheart. Today he’s been working for the family, one of the top oyster dealers in Texas, for close to 20 years. And for as far back as he can remember, he tells us, there have been oysters in Galveston Bay, “oysters like crazy.”

Sadly, that’s changing. Yes, the Gulf Coast region—composed of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida—is the leader of America’s $217.2 million dollar industry, producing 44 percent of all oysters consumed in the country each year, with the bulk of that production coming from Texas and Louisiana. And the Texas oyster industry itself has a $50 million impact on the state economy annually. But the resource has declined over time, part of a downward spiral worldwide.

“There are predictions that globally, we’ve lost 85 to 91 percent of oysters around the world,” says Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi marine biology professor Jennifer Pollack, who studies the bivalves in the bays surrounding Corpus Christi, “and 50 to 85 percent of all oyster habitat here in Texas.” When you harvest an oyster, she explains, you’re taking away its habitat with it, which is bad news for bays, wetlands, and even the coast, since reefs act as natural barriers against big storms.

In 1999, a high-water mark for the industry, fishermen harvested 6.13 million pounds of oysters, not including shells, in Galveston Bay, about 95 percent of the 6.4 million pounds harvested in Texas that year. But since Ike hit in 2008, the bay’s production has never topped more than 3.5 million pounds in a year. In 2016 fishermen harvested just 709,408 pounds out of the bay. While overall Texas still had a strong harvest in 2016, providing 3.1 million pounds of oysters to enthusiasts, that’s a far cry from the 1990s and early aughts.

For a cautionary tale about the desolation that could descend upon the Texas coast, consider what’s already happened in New York Harbor and Chesapeake Bay. Both were considered America’s essential oyster hubs until, more than a century ago, they were decimated by overharvesting, disease, and pollution.

New York closed to oyster fishing in 1906, its oyster beds nonexistent. Chesapeake Bay went from producing 20 million bushels of oysters in the late 1800s to having three quarters of its natural oyster reefs disappear by the 1920s. Today in the Chesapeake, oysters are only at 1 percent of their peak historic level, and there’s little hope of them ever growing there again—except for genetically engineered (and sterile) triploid oysters harvested in man-made cages.

Texas, home to Galveston Bay’s massive reefs, built up over centuries, is one of the last states that still harvest oysters from natural beds. The Crassostrea virginica, the bivalve found in our waters (as well as in the Atlantic), has been a bountiful delicacy in the bay since before settlers arrived. The Karankawas supplemented their diet with the plump, briny wonders. By the 1880s, Texas was the only state that shipped oysters by train to other regions, which was when the first oyster houses—or firms, as they were called—were established here.

Our oysters thrive in saltwater estuaries that have a freshwater inflow, and serve the dual purpose of filtering the bay. In fact, oysters are pretty magical. Not only can they change their sex, they can sequester carbon from the atmosphere to help curb air pollution, and even mitigate nitrogen produced by wastewater treatment plants. Natural oyster reefs are like big old family trees, composed of granddaddy and grandma oysters at the base and younger generations attaching themselves on top. Reefs near shore are safe harbors for juvenile shrimp and crabs, and conservationists consider them to be more valuable than sea grass.

A 2017 economic impact study prepared for Galveston County by Martin Associates reported that between seafood processing and commercial fishing, Galveston Bay brings in more than $66 million in direct personal income and about $111 million in direct business revenue each year.

Like any other seafood—say, red snapper—the bivalves on public beds are protected by Texas Parks & Wildlife. Size limits allow both to grow. But while snapper can swim, oysters can’t, which makes them even more vulnerable. As Tracy Woody of Jeri’s Seafood in Smith Point, one of the top oyster dealers in the Texas market, puts it: “They can’t just run and hide.”

It’s TPWD’s job to balance the conditions that must be maintained for a healthy population with the needs of the multimillion-dollar Texas oystering industry, and the Texans who’ve made their living fishing oysters for generations.

This task has gotten increasingly difficult over the past decade, as Galveston Bay has faced numerous setbacks—or, as Lance Robinson, deputy division director of the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department's Coastal Fisheries, describes it, “a series of cumulative impacts.”

Over the past decade, Texas oysters have endured everything from hurricanes to floods to drought.

In 2008 Hurricane Ike dumped so much silt, sediment, and debris into Galveston Bay that the oysters on more than 8,000 acres of reef, roughly half the reefs in the bay, suffocated to death. Seemingly overnight, the bay went from supplying 80 percent of Texas oysters each year to just under a third. While the reefs were easily destroyed by the storm, it has taken years, and more than $70 million, to rebuild just 1,400 acres of these devastated oyster beds. It will take an estimated $330 million over decades—yes, decades—to recover.

Then, just two years after Ike, the Deepwater Horizon blowout sent crude oil gushing into the Gulf off the coast of Louisiana. Texas bays came through relatively unscathed, but as Robinson explains, “Every other state in the Gulf was closed from that event but Texas, so we had increased pressure and harvest. We also had a drought in that time frame.”

The drought, from 2011 to 2015, was one of the worst in Texas history, resulting in too-salty waters, a calling card for parasites, disease, and oyster drills—small, predatory snails that like to stab oysters in the back and eat them from the inside out.

“It was like pulling dredge on a parking lot,” remembers Misho Ivic of Misho’s Oysters, one of the largest oyster dealers in Texas. “Snails ate everything.”

Meanwhile, oysters that weren’t devoured by predators were being contaminated by red tide and other toxic algae blooms that thrived in warm, salty water. Starting in 2011, Texas Department of State Health Services officials not only delayed the start of the season but closed off sections hit by these algae spores, in an effort to keep people from getting sick. Then came 2015 and 2016, and the massive floods that brought in too much fresh water, again destabilizing the oysters.

This time there appeared to be a bright side. Yes, flooding kills oysters, but it also ultimately can help reefs in the long run, cleansing them of predators and disease brought on by high salinity while leaving shells intact. These shells, in turn, attract babies, or spat, providing plenty of hiding spots for them to grow big and market-sized with a lesser chance of predation. 

Unfortunately, many didn’t stand a chance as, last August, a storm called Harvey arrived, dumping more than 33 trillion gallons of fresh water, most of which ended up in the bays and estuaries. Padilla and his family initially came through the hurricane fine—he spent the days afterward rescuing people stranded in the floods—but the industry lost millions, as populations growing in many of Galveston Bay’s reefs were cut in half or worse.

At first some thought the state wouldn’t open the bay to oystering season at all. In those first weeks after the hurricane, oystermen, scientists, and wardens hit the water, checking on mortality on public and private reefs. Padilla went out and pulled up some oysters on Prestige Oysters’ leases, just to see how the reefs had fared. He and his deckhands sorted through dozens of bivalves, firing the half-open shells of dead ones back into the water. They found only four live ones. But that was only one part of the bay.

By November it became clear that some oysters on public reefs had survived and grown to market size. The good ones were soon scraped off the beds, though.

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When you take into account all these stresses, it’s not surprising that the quality of the Texas oyster has waned while the price has doubled over the past 20 years. In 2000 dealers paid an estimated $2.24 per pound for oyster meat at the dock. In 2016 they paid about $5.50, and as of December of last year, they were paying $6.20, according to Robinson. Today prices are the highest the industry has seen since Texas Parks & Wildlife first started recording the annual rates back in 1972. Houston-area restaurants have increased prices accordingly: In 2004 longtime local food critic Robb Walsh wrote about enjoying Texas oysters at downtown restaurant Joyce’s for $6.95 a dozen. Today the same plate is $14.95.

Part of the problem is the oystermen themselves, TPWD’s Robinson explains, because when good-sized bivalves aren’t available, some have not shied away from bending the rules to fill their sacks. After Ike, many got into the habit of loading up their bags—which typically hold 110 pounds, roughly 250 to 300 oysters—with as much as half their contents composed of dead shell or undersized bivalves.

This practice does damage. Dead shell is crucial for the reefs because it serves as a substrate for the next generation of oysters, while harvesting undersized oysters too early means they can’t spawn and repopulate the bay. “Oyster dealers came to the department and said, ‘We’ve got a problem here,’” Robinson says.

Robinson has been with TPWD for 27 years, working out of Galveston Bay for 20 of those as a field biologist and regional director. He says it’s quite common for oyster-industry leaders to voice their opinions and push for regulations and change. “It’s one of the fisheries in Texas that’s the closest to co-management as we see. There is a lot more dialogue. They understand there are issues out there.” That doesn’t mean all parties always see eye to eye, though.

“Everyone wants more oysters,” adds Pollack, the marine biologist at A&M. “I go to wildlife commission and stakeholder meetings. We’re all engaged. But it’s hard to figure out what the path forward is.”

In 2016 stressed oystermen started prospecting in areas they’d never fished before: intertidal reefs, the shallow reefs along the edge of bays that stick up out of the water when it’s low tide and are imperative to the health of numerous species and our wetlands. Sixty commercial fishermen at a time might be wading around on those reefs to harvest oysters. The state immediately closed the areas.

“It opened people’s eyes,” says Pollack. Texas has now restricted fishing on any oyster reef within 300 feet of the shore.

In 2017 the state ramped up regulations even more and increased penalties—a move that’s good for the oysters, but hard, hard, hard, says Padilla, on fishermen like him. Oystermen now have to pay larger fines if they’re caught with a sack containing over 5 percent undersized shell, up to $500. If it’s over 30 percent, everybody on board can face even steeper fines, license suspensions, even jail time.

“The penalty is like driving drunk,” says Woody of Jeri’s Seafood. “They’ll throw you in jail. We’re talking about small oysters, and I believe that’s a little harsh.” But nothing else has worked to curb the problem.

“Nobody wants to get in trouble,” adds Padilla. “You try to do your best.”

When one of the brothers working for him as a deckhand quit in January, unable to get by on his low wage and wanting to go into construction, Padilla understood. “‘Do what you need to do, but there’s nothing I can do,’” Padilla told him.

Padilla then had to find another deckhand on the fly, one, he hoped, who already knew the basics, the legal size of oysters, how much goes in a sack, and what quality to look for. “When you’ve got new people, it’s really hard to not get a ticket,” he says.

Back in 2005, state officials announced they were going to put a moratorium on any new oyster licenses in Texas. The idea was to reduce the number of boats drawing on the public reefs each year. But the move backfired. The ban sent people into a last-chance-scenario buying mode during the yearlong window before it went into effect, putting licenses on just about anything that floats—someone even tried to put one on a jet ski. The number of licenses skyrocketed from 350 to 760, the opposite of the new rule’s intended effect.

Today there are still 557 commercial oyster-boat licenses and 465 oyster-boat captain licenses in Texas, numbers that are still too high. Last year the state implemented a license buyback program to alleviate stress on the water, in addition to other measures, including reducing limits from 40 to 30 sacks, closing reefs to commercial harvest on Saturdays, and requiring dealers to return 30 percent by volume of shucked shell from each sack to help rebuild public reefs.

Controversially, Texas has also introduced a new measure requiring boats to be outfitted with vessel monitoring systems (VMS), which use GPS technology to track boats and bust any that fish on closed waters or poach from private leases.

But while these systems could be key to curbing overharvesting in the future, the state currently has no funding to utilize the new tool. That’s right: Texas requires the boats to have VMS, but can’t afford the satellite technology needed to operate it. Instead, the state continues to rely on wardens to hand out citations, but there are only 12 patrolling the waters between Galveston and Chambers counties, and they can’t be everywhere at once.

The oystermen themselves are divided on VMS. Prestige Oysters’ Raz Halili is for it, but his own fisherman, Padilla, doesn’t think it’s the answer. Instead, Padilla says, the state should listen to fishermen’s concerns and take into account their input on what’s fished out, while opening other areas. But what would keep fishermen from overfishing those as well?

“That is the argument,” says Ivic of Misho’s Oysters. “If fishermen respected area 5, the state would open it.”

In fact, this year by mid-January, the state already had evidence of fishing in that exact area even though it hadn’t opened. Scraped reef. Broken shell. The tell-tale signs of dredging and culling.

Texas uses a science-based threshold to determine if an area has enough sustainable market-sized oysters to open. If it falls below a certain mark, the state closes the area until the oysters can grow to adequate size, which could be years. 

“Our position is, those oysters belong to everyone in the state of Texas,” says Robinson, “and it’s our goal to manage them in a prudent and sustainable method.”

Some oystermen continue to insist the real problem is that the state is opening the wrong beds. Boats started avoiding Copano Bay this season, Padilla tells us, even though it was open, because nobody wanted to fish there for fear of getting a ticket.

“Why not open other areas that have market-sized oysters?” Halili adds. “What’s the point of keeping them closed? What’s the point of having this system of harsh penalties, if you know there’s an area of market-sized oysters? I don’t understand that.”

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Tracy Woody of Jeri’s Seafood says his own lack of trust in the state to protect the resource is the reason why, in 2014, he and his now-deceased father-in-law created Sustainable Texas Oyster Resource Management (STORM), with the goal of preserving it through private enterprise.

While most of Texas’s rich oystering tradition was built upon its 49,000 acres of public beds, since the 19th century, oystermen have also fished on private leases, of which today there are just 43, covering more than 2,300 acres of reef, all located in Galveston Bay. Since the state placed a moratorium on these leases in the 1980s, they are now controlled by just a few people, including Woody and the Halilis, both of whom also own Texas’s largest oyster-processing facilities.

Leaseholders put millions of dollars back into the bay, building up their private reefs, which they typically harvest after the public season is over. For loyal fishermen like Padilla, who leases the Miss Kosovare directly from the Halilis and sells only to them, this means a way to make money year-round.

Which is why most oystermen found STORM to be suspect from the beginning. Woody founded the initiative after discovering a bill of sale dating back to 1957 revealing, he maintains, that the state had sold 23,000 acres of submerged land to the Chambers–Liberty Counties Navigation District, including about 2,900 acres of public beds and 452 acres of private beds already leased by his competitors, the Halilis and Ivic among them.

“Parks and Wildlife went and leased to those folks across the bay—the others—land that the state had sold and no longer owned,” Woody argues. “It’s basic property law.”

After informing the Navigation District that it owned this underwater land, he leased it from them with the intention of managing it. He then sent out notifications to the other leaseholders warning them not to trespass on his property.

Not surprisingly, Woody’s competition saw the effort as an attempt to corner the market. “It was half the bay,” says Halili, whose family had spent millions building up private reefs in Chambers County. Lawsuits were filed, and last fall a Galveston district judge sided with the state, dismissing Woody’s claim on the leases (he has said he’ll appeal).

The camaraderie among local oystermen, long a tradition, took a hit. All of the involved parties still show up at important meetings with Robinson, but afterward, you might find Ivic and the Halilis chitchatting or grabbing lunch, while Woody heads back to his car alone. Black sheep, Ivic calls him.

Woody continues to insist private enterprise is the solution. In 2016 he released a video, shot by drone, of opening day at Dollar Reef, a restored 30-acre site just south of San Leon. More than 100 boats of all sizes dredged in circles, practically twirling over each other like ice skaters warming up at the Olympics. It was fished out in just two days. Woody says the state should’ve closed it by the end of the first day but instead kept it open a week, until all the market-sized oysters were gone.

Halili says the video is misleading. “I get so mad when people bring that up,” he says. “The fishermen weren’t doing anything illegal. That’s just how the resource is fished now.”

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Padilla at the helm of the Miss Kosovare

On a cloudless Monday afternoon at the end of January, Padilla pilots his boat through the blue-black water off San Leon. The tide is low, the shallows near Prestige Oysters glassy and inviting. But the Galveston Bay oystermen are fed up. At the dock, Padilla unloads just 15 sacks, and the boat behind him brings in only 10.

“A warden stopped me and checked a sack,” he tells Halili, who, clad in a bleach-white Adidas track suit, is kicked back at his desk overlooking the bay. Padilla’s white undershirt is smeared with oyster mud; his family, he says, has gone through two washing machines in two years. “I ask him if they’ll open area 5, and he says, ‘You’ll know before I do; they don’t tell us anything.’ If they don’t open area 5, I don’t know what we’ll do.”

Padilla definitely doesn’t want a job off the water. He loves the hard work and the bay. His family orders his birthday cakes with Happy Birthday, Captain Joaquin scrawled across the top. Being on the water, he says, makes him feel like he’s driving alone on an open road.

He loves the Miss Kosovare so much, he made a minute-long YouTube video of boat photos set to Massage Envy–style guitar jazz. His three sons love it, too. They’ve grown up working on the water with him, going jet skiing on the weekend. Last year Padilla even purchased an oyster boat, the North Western, in case his sons decide they want to go into the business with him.

On a few occasions, Padilla has given up on oystering. Directly after Harvey, in fact, he tried cleaning houses for a few weeks, believing there might not be a season. But at only around $300 a week, it wasn’t the same money, not enough to support his family in the long run. When his 16-year-old daughter informed him she wanted to attend college, he knew he had to get back out on the water.

Padilla makes the majority of his money during the public season when sacks are more expensive, but since he’s one of the Halilis’ most loyal fishermen, he often spends six months working Prestige’s private leases in Texas and Louisiana during the off season, the only member of his family to do so.

In February, after Robinson announces that the state will be opening two sections down south and closing TX 7—the only open portion of Galveston Bay—Padilla packs up and heads down the coast with a crew of four guys, two of them new, on the Miss Kosovare, towing the smaller North Western behind it.

They start dredging in a section near Palacios, but soon are pulling up undersized oysters that they have to throw back. They head into Matagorda, where Padilla’s brother-in-law is already working. They find 300 boats trawling the waters in the newly opened section off the South Texas coast.

“It’s so many boats,” he tells us. “They’re gonna destroy the reef.”

Still, that doesn't stop Padilla from trying to scrape together a few sacks of oysters himself. How can he not, when they’re selling for more than $6 a pound?

He can only bring in 25 sacks; three days later, it’s only 15. At night he watches movies with his crew, listens to music. Valentine’s Day comes and goes, and he talks with his family on the phone.

“What are you doing?” his boys ask him. “We miss you.”

“Nothing,” he tells them. “Nada. It’s boring. I miss you too.”

Two weeks later, Prestige sends Padilla to Louisiana to do some oyster transplanting. March arrives, and he ties up the Miss Kosovare and takes the North Western to South Texas to fish in another open area. When fishermen travel, they must cover their personal  expenses, and even when they’re not bringing in sacks, they still have to pay for boat leases and maintenance while taking care of costs back home. Many don’t enjoy it.

Back in Galveston Bay, Texas Parks & Wildlife has decided not to open TX 5 at all this season. The agency won’t even start testing it again until fall of 2018, so if another flood comes through, it’s possible all of its market-sized oysters will die. That’s a risk TPWD is willing to take to protect the resource. The fishermen, of course, are disappointed. Galveston Bay is pretty much done for the season.

“We had a guy come up and want to sell his boat and his license,” says Halili. “Done it for most of his life. But it was too difficult with the new regulations and the travel. He’s not interested.”

Although official numbers won’t be out until the end of this month, Padilla thinks this has been the worst season he’s ever seen, and he’s convinced the next two years will be identical, with only a few reefs opening while baby spat grow out in closed areas. He is hopeful, at least, that the oysters are coming back. 

Come April, he still wakes up before dawn down in Rockport, firing the engine of the North Western, dropping dredge as 300 boats circle nearby, getting his new guys to cull quickly as the oysters crash onto the table. He’s grateful that another new area has opened, that, when possible, they’ve been able to bring in their 30 sacks. He’s proud to be out on the North Western, a symbol of his success, a boat he bought for his own family, for his future, for his boys.

“I don’t know if I made the right decision buying this for my kids or not,” he says. “One day maybe they can come out and use the boat to make some money. I hope so.”

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