The Survival of the Gulf of Maine Fishermen

An Italian tenor crackled over the radio, as a fisherman sang to the other men on the water. When he finished, the men resumed their usual chatter, laughing and joking. It was spring in the early 1970s, the heyday of commercial fishing in the Gulf of Maine. Two hundred boats sailed out of Gloucester harbor, and the fishing was easy, ripe with opportunity and wealth.

“The whole city ran on diesel and fish,” recalled Russell Sherman, who took a job fishing on a day boat in 1971 after graduating from Harvard.Coming from Putnam, a mill town in northern Connecticut, Sherman had no fishing experience. But, back then it didn’t matter. You could learn.

And Sherman did. He started at the bottom. His friend – a Harvard buddy who was from Gloucester — found him a job working as deckhand on a boat targeting groundfish: cod, haddock, pollock and flounder. With each season of fishing, he learned more, figuring out where to go cast his nets and which nets to use. In just a two years, he was making more money than his father.

“We were looked at with respect,” he said recently. “We were the best earners. We were the ones that had the money that spent the money to keep the economy going.”

Today, it’s a different story. The codfish – if you believe National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s latest 2011 stock assessment – are on the brink of catastrophe. And Sherman, now age 65, is considering filing for bankruptcy.

 In 1623, the Dorchester Company – a group of English colonists – established Gloucester as a fishing community. In the centuries following, people immigrated from Nova Scotia, Sicily and Portugal to fish in the cold, fertile Gulf of Maine.

Different species of fish have come in and out of vogue since the fishery started. But arguably the most popular have been codfish and Atlantic bluefin tuna, particularly over the last two decades, when the international tuna market took off.

Despite sharing such a high profile status, cod and bluefins are very different fish.

A cod.

A cod is thrown in a burlap sack.

Cod are dull in every respect. They live at the bottom of the sea, where they hover just off the floor searching for clams and other food. They don’t travel far, instead preferring to stay in the Gulf year round. Murky brown with white spots on their backs and gaping mouths, they’re not a pretty fish. When caught for sport with a line and reel, they don’t fight their way back to the bottom; instead they allow themselves to be dragged to the surface as 10 to 25 pounds of dead weight. Commericially, fishermen favor using nets or with hundred foot long fishing lines riddled with hooks called long lines to catch them.

In the 1980s and 90s, cod was an industry staple. It had been the fish to catch since the city was founded. It was so quintessential a wooden carving of a “sacred cod” was hung in the statehouse. Then, in 2011 the fishery collapsed. No one is quite sure as to why, some people believe it was overfishing. But government officials say it could be attributed to a number of things including the warming of the ocean, the acidification of the ocean, changes in plankton and other changes to the environment.

Bluefin tuna, on the other hand, are a more beautiful and imposing species. While not the only big fish in the ocean, bluefins are “consistently the most powerful and amazing and majestic fish in the world,” as one fisherman put it. As soon as they bite, they dive, sometimes pulling 35-foot boats with them as they struggle. They can only be caught by line and reel, unlike their cousins, albacore tuna, that you find in a Bumblebee tuna fish sandwich. To legally keep one, the fish needs to be at least 73 inches long, averaging about 420 pounds. And that’s the small ones. While native to the Gulf of Maine, bluefins are a highly migratory species traveling to the Gulf of Mexico and the Mediterranean. Their deep blue backs make them nearly invisible from the surface until they flash their yellow underbellies. The stock – which just a few years ago was being discussed as a possibility for the endangered species list – is rebuilding.

The state of these species is a topic of debate. The conservation groups disagree with the scientists who disagree with the fishermen.  The “best available science” has been scoffed at. And, of course, there is even more disagreement within those groups.  Some scientists think the stocks are fine, others think the situation is dire. Some fishermen agree with the  restrictions placed of the industry, others believe they should be allowed to catch more fish. Others just want the government to offer some relief.

The only thing everybody agrees on is that it’s impossible to count all the fish in the sea.

What the Bluefin and cod have in common is that they are the highest profile fisheries in the Gulf of Maine. Both species are tightly controlled by the NOAA, the government agency under the Department of Commerce charged with carrying out the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA). And the managers and fishermen of both species have come under fire from conservation groups claiming the stocks have been fished irresponsibly.

When the MSA was passed by Congress in 1976, it wasn’t focused on conservation, but on giving United States fishermen a fighting chance. Massive foreign fishing fleets were trawling just off the shore, decimating fish populations and destroying all hope of a sustainable domestic fishery. The act – led by Senator Warren Magnuson, D-Wash. – was designed to push these foreign boats out of U.S. waters.

“They used real small mesh and they took just everything,” said cod fisherman David Goethel, who has been fishing since 1967.  “When they got done there just wasn’t a sign of life. It was like the ocean was a dead zone.”

When the act went into effect, the foreign vessels dissipated like a morning fog. The act protected the zone from three to 200 miles offshore, closing prime fishing grounds to foreigners. The anomaly to the law was highly migratory fish such as bluefin tuna, which fell under international regulation.

But in 1996, Congress amended the legislation to stop protecting the fishermen and start protecting the fish. By then, cod, tuna and other stocks were depleted. Under pressure from marine conservation groups, Congress passed amendments known as the  Sustainable Fisheries Act, which prioritized the health of ecosystems and fish stocks as its primary concern. It also brought bluefins under the control of NOAA.

In 2007, another round of revisions to the act took an even firmer stance in favor of conservation. This one called for an immediate end to overfishing, demanding that the fishery management plan meet annual catch limits that would end overfishing by 2010 and rebuild stocks byu 2014.

By 2009, the cod stocks weren’t recovering fast enough to make the court-imposed 2014 deadline. Legally obligated to take whatever measures necessary to meet the goal, NOAA decided to try sector management, a favored tool of NOAA Director Jane Lubchenco.

Sector management divides the total allowable catch, also known as the maximum sustainable yield, into shares of fish. These shares are then allocated to fishermen based on their history in the industry. Those who have been in it longer and who historically caught more fish, get more quota.

When the measures were first proposed at a New England Fishery Management Council Meeting in June 2009, the response was positive, the Cape Cod Times reported. There was little debate at the meeting and in the end the sectors passed 14 to one. The allocation method – a more controversial measure – passed 12 to four with one abstention.

 But once the management method was put into practice, the fishermen started to protest. The regulations had divided them into clear winners and losers. The winners had enough fish to survive. The losers had to get out of the business by selling their quota to someone else or, if they wanted to stay in, they had to  find people to sell them their permits.

As Sherman wrote in a letter to President Barack Obama,“While there will be a small handful of ‘winners’ under these new rules, the vast majority of us will be losers. And when we ‘losers’ are forced out, jobs will be lost, coastal communities gutted, and crucial commercial fishing infrastructure gone forever.”

The letter was run as a full page ad in the August 24, 2010 Vineyard Gazette, while the President vacationed on the Vineyard. It was also mailed to him. But, Sherman said he never responded.

The sectors plan has forced as many as half of the ground fishermen out of business since their implementation in 2010, according to fishermen. The Kennebec Journal reported that in the 1990s there were 350 boats targeting groundfish in Maine, by 2011 that number was down to 45. Worse yet, the sectors didn’t deliver. The latest NOAA assessment suggest the cod are in even worse shape than they were in 2009. And as a result, NOAA has mandated another reduction in fishing.

The new reduction has caused many managers, including New Hampshire sector manager Dr. Josh Wiersma, to believe the industry will be slashed in half again.

“We had 22 active boats last year. I expect this year we’ll probably have 10,” he said.

Commercial Fisheries News called the Jan. 30, 2013 meeting of the New England Fishery Management Council “an unforgettable Wednesday” that “may go down as the worst of all.” It was at that meeting the council — which approves management plans for marine fisheries — voted in favor of a 78 percent reduction to the Gulf of Maine cod stock and a 55 percent reduction to the Georges Bank stock. These give the fishermen a total allocation of 1,550 metric tons and 2,506 metric tons respectively.

The reductions brought some men to tears, George Darcy, a representative from NOAA later recalled.

“You see people coming up to the microphone with tears in their eyes and in some cases it’s because they’re worried about their families or losing their boat or they’re worried about pride,” he said.

Sherman was in the audience that day. His doctor has told him not to attend the meeting, fearing Sherman would have a stroke from the stress. But the Northeast Seafood Coalition — an organization Sherman sits on the board of that supports commercial fishermen — asked him to go. And Sherman probably would have been there anyways.

“I can’t let this go. I’m afraid to lose my house,” he said.

A sign by the docks shows the geography of the ocean floor.To a New England fishermen, the water off shore are more than endless tracts of ocean. They represent a distinct but submerged landscape. The Gulf of Maine is where most of the day boats fishermen out of Gloucester fish, and beyond that are the peaks of Georges Banks where the day boats out of Cape Cod and larger boats out of Gloucester and other New England ports fish. Because these two areas are home to distinct populations of Atlantic cod they are regulated differently. These waters are also home to yellowtail flounder , haddock, skate, dogfish, redfish and white hake, among other stocks. Yellowfin flounder and haddock will both be experiencing “substantial” cuts, according to NOAA officials.

“It just never stops,” said Sherman, who targets these other species in addition to cod. “The cuts never stop.”

Dave Marciano, who now works out of Gloucester as a tuna fisherman and is featured on the National Geographic Channel’s reality television show “Wicked Tuna,” was a loser when the sectors went into effect. He had started fishing for cod at the age of 10, and was forced out by the age of 45.

His allocation of fish was only about one third of what he had been previously catching, not nearly enough to support his family. He estimates it would have cost him between $300,000 and $500,000 to purchase enough additional cod allocation to survive. He didn’t have that kind of money, and borrowing it from the bank wasn’t a viable option.

“I would have lost everything I own if it weren’t…” he paused for a second. “You know, the show has helped me enormously.”

The TV show, which pays for his time but not enough to get the new truck he wants, gave him enough publicity for his tuna charters to take off. If it wasn’t for the publicity, he thinks he would have had to sell his boat.

“Tuna fishing would never be enough. Ground fish is where I made 80 percent of my income and that’s all F****** gone now,” he said.

With the cod cuts, Marciano believes more ground fishermen will be forced to try their hand at tuna. But, he doesn’t think it will be enough to keep them going.

“They’re in for a rude awakening,” he said.

Bluefin tuna fishing is as highly politicized an issue as cod fish, maybe even more so. Up until the mid-70s tuna were considered  throw-away fish. They were worth so little in the market that the bulk of them were sold for cat food, recalled Gloucester tuna fisherman Bill Monte. Plus, they were a nuisance to catch because they damaged fishermen’s gear.

But as a young man, Monte didn’t care about the difficulties of catching tuna. He didn’t care about the low prices.What he cared about was the challenge. He had fished for the basics – cod, haddock and striped bass – with his father for as long as he could remember. And when he saw a bluefin hanging up in Gloucester harbor, he knew he needed to catch one.

“I was like ‘are you kiddin’ me?’” he laughed. “I’m looking at this massive submarine, and I go, ‘I gotta catch one of those,’ and that’s how I started.”

He continued, “once you catch one, you’re all done. You might as well be doing drugs, ’cause the fight and the challenge is too much.”

In the late 70s, the demand for bluefins took off with the Japanese sushi market. The price per pound jumped, and guys like Monte were able to get $10,000 or $11,000 for a single fish. When this happened, the bluefin fishing in the Gulf of Maine turned into a race to catch as many bluefin as possible. Meanwhile, in the Mediterranean, even fewer conservation measures were in place, and that stock consequently dwindled.

A little over a decade later, overfishing was doing the bluefin in. In the 1990s, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) found the bluefin tuna populations had declined by about 80 percent since the fish became popular. The finding changed the way people thought about tuna, and brought conservation into focus. The regulations placed on American fishermen were tightened in an effort to allow the stock to rebuild.

Since then, how to best handle tuna fishing has been an ongoing debate. In January 2012, the Center for Biological Diversity — an advocacy group based in New Mexico — sued the government for mismanagement of the population. They claimed the regulations weren’t strict enough. The lawsuit came one year after the government rejected bluefins for an endangered species listing, instead classifying them as a species of concern.

“There is no sustainable fishery for bluefin tuna right now,” said staff attorney at CBD Catherine Kilduff. “Because a sustainable fishery would be one where the fishery is not overfished and overfishing is not occurring and that’s not the case for bluefin tuna now.”

But there are a lot of people who disagree with that assessment. Molly Lutcavage, a tuna researcher at the Large Pelagic Research Center in Gloucester, tenses up when you mention the CBD.

“I’ve had it out with them, saying, ‘When are you are you going to try to do a better job with the science?” she said, with a frustrated gesture at her computer monitor.

While Lutcavage agrees that the bluefins have been historically overfished, she disagrees that overfishing is currently happening, noting that American fishermen have not caught their tuna quota since 2003. Additionally, she points out, there are more fish today than there were five years ago.

Lutcavage also says the current assessment method used by ICCAT has critical errors, including relying too heavily on catch data and not having a solid enough understanding of the biology. Using catch data is a flawed system, she says, because the fishermen have restrictions on how much they can catch, therefore restricting the data. As far as she is concerned, American fishermen are not a threat to the tuna stocks.

The most recent ICCAT assessment has left many managers puzzled, at it presented two equally plausible scenarios. The first scenario stipulates tuna need to repopulate to their 1970s levels, which would mean the stock is woefully depleted and a decrease in quota is necessary. The second scenario says tuna stocks can’t rebuild to those levels and are in fact already rebuilt so fisherman can catch more fish.

Brad McHale, branch chief of the highly migratory species at NOAA, called the report “the worst place a manager can be in.”

“Scientists state that each one is equally possible,” McHale said. “So we could either be in dire straights or everything is fine if you go with the other.”

For the 2013 fishing season, NOAA decided to play it safe, choosing to not increase the fish allocation despite an increase in the number of bluefins seen in the Gulf of Maine. McHale says he will reevaluate once the next ICCAT assessment – which is supposed to incorporate information from new studies about the bluefin’s biology — is completed in 2014.

Ocean dwelling fish are by nature difficult to manage. The waves shroud them in a veil of mystery that science has yet to fully penetrate, leaving regulators to work with the “best available science.”

The “best available science” has become a bit like a curse word on the docks, as many of people believe the “best available” is simply not good enough.

2013.04.15 Fishing Boat Heritage in Port 5“The whole problem starts with bad science,” said Tom Williams, who runs the boat the F/V Heritage.

Williams, like many other fishermen, believes the scientist don’t understand what is happening in the water. These fishermen say the scientist are not accounting for the warmer waters in the Gulf of Maine, for the increase in predators, for the cycles in the ocean or for the fact fish move. As a result, they say, fish populations are being underestimated.

Darcy defended the science, saying that NOAA is working with the best numbers.

“Our scientific surveys, though are not designed to catch fish, per se. They’re designed to sample the same areas, the same way, year after year after year, because it’s not the number of fish we catch, it’s the trends. Is it going up? Is it going down? Are the fish getting bigger? Smaller? Are we seeing young fish that are coming in, or not? Those are the things that the surveys look for. That’s not what the fishermen out there are doing. So it’s really apples and oranges,” he said.

On his desk, there are stack and stacks of paper about the cod fishery. Maps of the Gulf of Maine hang up his wall, and a few pictures of boats and fish are scattered throughout his office. He looks tired. He doesn’t know how cod got into this situation, just a few years ago in 2008, the stock assessment for cod looked good.  At that point, he believed the population would rebuild by 2014. He was hopeful, excited even. But now, as far as he is concerned, the fish aren’t there.

There are people rooted in the Gulf of Maine fishing community who believe NOAA’s stock assessment. One of the most notable is Tom Dempsey, a member of the New England Fishery Management Council and the  policy director for the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association.

He works primarily with the George’s Bank stock, but is familiar with the Gulf of Maine as well. He favors a conservative approach to management, saying what the fishermen are telling him supports what the scientists are finding.

“They don’t see codfish in the way that they used to,” he said. To him the cuts represent “paper fish.” Fish that the fishermen weren’t going to catch anyways, because they don’t exist.

 Wiersma disagrees. While the cod fishermen in his sector did not catch their total allocation this year, they did catch about 60 percent of it. Which, by his math, means the cuts will reduce the number of fish the boats are landing by about two thirds.

Once a fisherman catches their total allocation of a certain fish, he has to stop fishing using any method that might catch that specific species. The species fishermen hit the limit on are called choke fish, because they limit fishing. Cod have the potential to be a choke fish this upcoming year, which would limit the amount of pollock fishermen could catch.

“Our stock that we actually make the most money off of is pollock, we catch a lot of it, it’s very cheap to catch, the problem is it’s caught basically in a very linear fashion with cod. So there’s a very predictable ratio that you’re going to catch three pollock for every cod that you catch,” he said.

“I hope government’s right, because if they are it won’t be an issue,” Wiersma continued. But, “if there are more than they say, then it’s going to be very difficult for us to manage fishing under those conditions.”

When the sectors went into effect, David Goethel, who fishes in the Gulf of Maine out of Hampton, N.H., thought it would be the end of his business. He had been fishing in the Gulf of Maine since 1967, after he received a degree in biology with a focus on marine sciences from Boston University.

He’s held on for the last few years. The first year he had the “best shrimp season ever” and then the next year the prices were good. This year, though, he doesn’t think he is going to make it.

“Groundfish has always paid the bills. You can get lucky here or there on some other fishery, but without groundfish you are not going to make it,” he said.

Goethel says he has seen decimation in the Gulf of Maine twice, once in the 90s and once in the 70s. But this isn’t it. This time, Goethel believes, the fish have moved in search of colder water.

The temperature in the Gulf of Maine has been steadily rising since 1870, according to Jeffrey Runge, a biological oceanographer at the University of Maine. He told the Bangor Daily News the increase has been particularly pronounced over the last 10 years. A similar temperature increase happened in the 1950s, before rapidly falling later.

“The question now is whether this is something similar to that warm period in the ’50s, or if this is something different, because we have other forces, we have more [carbon dioxide] being put in the air than 50 or 60 years ago,” he told the Daily News in 2012.

Clark Sandler is one of the few guys who thinks he will make it through the cuts.

“It’s just my personality: stubbornness,” he said. “I refuse to stop.”

Sandler has been in the business for 35 years. He started on his friend’s dad’s boat as a 9-year-old. Then, at the age of 26 after completing his law degree, he returned to the Gulf, deciding that office life was not for him.

His dragger, the Sea Farmer, is 80 feet long, capable of sailing for up to 10 days at a time. This allows him to travel to areas that the day boats, like Goethel’s, just can’t get to. He isn’t as dependent on cod, catching pollock, red fish and flounder.

He’s more worried about the changes to the observer program. As part of the MSA, government observers are required to go out on the boats randomly to assess if the regulations are being followed. Up until this point, the government has always footed the bill for the observers’ salaries. But this year, that is slated to change and is going to cost the fishermen an estimated $700 a day.

“Where does that money come from?” Clark asks rhetorically. “It comes from the fish. So it puts more pressure on us to catch fish. To take more fish out of the ocean so that we can pay the government … where’s the conservation in that?”

Sherman was floundering even before new cod quotas were announced. Last year, he lost money squid fishing in Connecticut and on white hake, another fish species in the Gulf of Maine. He needed this to be a good year.

When the sector allocations were announced, he was hit hard. His allocation was not nearly enough to make a living off of, leaving him with two choices: stop fishing or take an expensive gamble and buy more quota.

He chose the quota.

“Our home was paid off for a week,” his wife Christine Sherman said. “We had to take out a second mortgage.”

Fifteen years ago, Christine asked Sherman to stop fishing. They were living simply (no vacations), but could afford everything they needed. She wanted him to get out while he was ahead and find another job. But Sherman refused. He liked the job, and thought he could make it. He believed that if he just worked a little harder he would always be able to make ends meet.

“You can’t do that anymore,” he said.

“Do you know hard it is to go to your wife, and say ‘I was wrong, dear. I was wrong’?”

On April 29th, just two days before the cuts went into effect, the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Association organized a rally at the Boston Fish Pier calling for some last minute relief: a one year interim measure that would allow their husbands to keep fishing or disaster assistance. The interim measure is hotly debated at NOAA regulators say it is illegal while Attorney General Martha Coakley is can legally be done.

The event was hosted on the Boston Fish Pier, putting Tory Bramante, owner of Atlantic Coast Seafood Inc,. – a seafood processing facility – in the middle of it.

Bramante looks just a little out of place in his khakis, button down shirt and tie. Most days, he comes to work in jeans and a beat up sweatshirt, but for today’s rally, he cleaned up.

The 100-year-old pier – usually a mess of stray ropes, safety cones and green trawling nets – has been cleaned up too. There are no delivery trucks, cars or even small tractors in the parking lot at the end of the dock; instead a massive white tent, with a stage and DJ booth have been erected.

Even the work boats look nicer than usual. Bramante’s boat America frames the stage for the rally, looking dashing with its new paint job.

Work at the docks – usually a frenzied effort to get fish off the boats as fast as possible – has come to a halt. No boats are coming in or going out, not wanting to disturb the rally that for many people is their last hope. If something doesn’t change in the two days before NOAA’s new quotas go into effect, many of the guys are looking at bankruptcy.

Not working makes Bramante antsy. With two days left in the fishing year, many fishermen are not at the rally but out on the water, working to bring in whatever is left of their allocation for the 2012 fiscal fishing year. There is going to be a rush of boats coming in later.

“Tomorrow will be crazy,” he says.

But if this rally works, it will be worth the lull today. It will have prevented a year long lull in the fishery and potentially save many boats.

“You never know,” he says, before turning away to take a phone call. “It could work.”

At the docks, over 100 ground fishermen gather in protest of the reduced quota. Dressed in flannel and shirts branded with the name of their boat, they stick out from the politicians and policy makers dressed in suits.

“There’s a lot of politicians up there,” one woman says to a friend.

“Somebody should be able to do something,” the friend replies.

The fishermen are quite clear about they want. They want an interim measure passed that allows them to fish enough cod to survive the year. Just one more year, they say, and the cycle of the sea will bring the cod back.

They don’t believe the science, and they certainly don’t believe there are no cod.

And if they can’t fish, they want relief.

“Washington rushes in to help our farmers. Washington needs to rush in to help our fisherman,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren cried to cheers from the crowd.

For two hours, official after official took to the stage all saying the same thing. Fishing is an old industry in America and it should be protected. NOAA should pass a one year interim measure allowing the fishermen just enough quota to survive. They will solicit the Congress and the President to support their cause. And they will fight.

“We cannot watch as we send fishing out into the international community and refuse to fight for an industry that has been a part of this country since its inception,” Congressman Bill Keating yells to cheers from the crowd, swearing he will work to gain bipartisan support in Washington.

“We will fix this or my name isn’t Bill Keating,” he says. With that the crowd erupts, waving red signs high over their heads that say: “Support local fishermen: eat local and fresh seafood.”

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After the rally, reporters flock around John Bullard, the regional administrator for the Northeast Regional Office. He’s the guy who decides what the cod quota will be, and right now, he’s adamant it is not going to change.

“Even if I had legal wiggle room, we have to rebuild these stocks and get out of this situation where we are at historically low levels of cod fish,” he says.

The scene looks a little bit like seagulls swooping on a dropped fish, as cameramen jockey for the best position, and reporters scramble to be heard.

“Unbelievable,” a woman mutters off to the side. “All this and he’ll still be the one they show on T.V. later.”

With a shake of the head, she turns and follows the rest of the crowd down the pier, still clutching her red sign.

Once the reporters dissipate, Keating walks over to Bullard, clapping him on the back with a small smile.

“The line about ‘we will fix this or my name is not Will Keating was a good one,’” Bullard compliments.

Keating nods in appreciation. “These types of events are hard. You have to edit as you go. You don’t want to say what everyone else has said.”

The two chat a little bit more before Keating wanders off and Bullard devotes his attention to more interviews. Their conversation is jovial, bordering on trivial. The quotas did not come up once in their conversation, seemingly already forgotten.

On May 1, the new cod quotas quietly went into effect. There was no last minute relief, no reprieve from the President. Nothing.

On the morning, Sherman woke up early, and went down to the harbor. His boat, the Lady Jane, was being pulled out of the water for the first time in three years. For repairs, he says. In June, he’s going to go down to Connecticut and try squid fishing again. Later in the day, he got a call from a friend and longtime fisherman saying he was selling his boat. It’s over.

Goethal, Williams and Sandler are all going to continue fishing. Sandler thinks he’ll make it. Goethal and Williams aren’t so sure, and Sherman is downright pessimistic.

“This is the nail in the coffin of the small boat family business,” he said. “This is it.”