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Species at Risk Act - Legal Listing Consultation Workbook, Fin whale (Atlantic Population)

Your opinion is being sought by the Canadian Government in order to make an informed decision concerning the addition of the fin whale (Atlantic population) to the List of Wildlife Species at Risk, as presented in Schedule 1 of the Species at Risk Act (SARA).

The status of the fin whale (Atlantic and Pacific populations combined) was first assessed by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) in April 1987, and designated it as being “of special concern”. In May 2002, after a COSEWIC reassessment, Atlantic fin whales and those from the Pacific were considered as two distinct populations. The Atlantic population retains its “of special concern” status, while the Pacific population is designated as being “threatened”. The Minister of Fisheries and Oceans must now decide whether to recommend that the Governor in Council adds the species to the List of Wildlife Species at Risk. Before deciding how to proceed, the federal government wishes to consult Canadians, particularly those directly concerned, to obtain their opinion in order to properly determine the social and economic impacts, both positive and negative, of the addition of the fin whale to the List of Wildlife Species at Risk. This consultation workbook was therefore designed with this objective in mind.

We encourage you to answer the questions (any or all) at the end of this workbook. We also invite you to add any comment you consider relevant. You can be assured that your answers and comments will be taken into consideration in the decision-making process. To make sure your comments are considered, responses are required before:


December 31, 2005

You can download a copy of this consultation workbook and find additional information regarding SARA at the following Internet address:


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The Species at Risk Act

A large variety of wildlife species inhabit Canadian lands and waters. Unfortunately some of them are in danger of disappearing. The Canadian government has therefore seriously committed to protecting them, particularly by adopting the Species at Risk Act (SARA) in June 2003, as part of its Endangered Wildlife Species Protection Strategy.

This Act provides a legal framework for adopting measures, throughout Canada, that will ensure the survival of wild animal and plant species and protect our natural heritage. This Act also establishes the criteria being used to determine which species must rapidly become the focus of recovery measures, and the methods to implement recovery in order to protect them. Finally, this Act establishes guidelines for cooperation between governments, organizations and individuals, and provides sanctions for offenders.

Environment Canada is responsible for the overall implementation of SARA. However, Fisheries and Oceans Canada has the responsibility for aquatic species at risk, except for individuals located on territories managed by Parks Canada (national parks, national historical sites, national marine conservation areas, and other protected heritage sites).

Since no single organization or entity can, on its own, take on the responsibility of ensuring the survival of a species, the effectiveness of the new Act will depend on everyone's goodwill to ensure the survival of all species at risk. With this in mind, SARA requires, at several steps throughout the process, that the federal government consult provincial and territorial governments, Aboriginal People, landowners, resource users, and the general public.

The consultation objective of the current workbook is about adding the fin whale (Atlantic population) to the List of Wildlife Species at Risk presented in Appendix 1 of SARA. This list contains all the species that have been assessed by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), and benefit from SARA's protection. COSEWIC designated the fin whale as "of special concern"in May 2005. The reader will find more details in the following sections regarding the addition of wild species, in particular fin whale, to the List of Wildlife Species at Risk and its legal consequences.

1.1. The role of COSEWIC

The mandate of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) is to assess the status of wild animal and plant species present in Canada and assign them a designation. The Committee is comprised of specialists working in various relevant fields such as biology, ecology and Aboriginal traditional knowledge. The members of COSEWIC come from different circles, such as governments, universities, aboriginal organizations, and non-governmental organizations. They are appointed according to their expertise, and must provide independent, impartial and scientific advice and recommendations in accordance with the mission of COSEWIC.

COSEWIC assesses the biological status of wildlife species by using the best scientific, community and traditional knowledge available. It reviews research and takes into account community and Aboriginal traditional knowledge. In its species assessment, COSEWIC uses rigorous assessment criteria based on those developed by the World Conservation Union (IUCN).

The first step in assessing the status of a wildlife species is to request a status report, which will then be reviewed by peers and approved by a sub-committee of experts on the species. During a meeting of COSEWIC members (once or twice a year), the status report is examined, and discussions are held in order to determine whether the species is at risk, and if necessary, to provide a status designation.

The statuses provided, which represent risk level categories, are as follows:

  • "Extinct" species: any species that no longer exists;
  • "Extirpated" species:any species that no longer exists in the wild in Canada, but exist elsewhere;
  • "Endangered" species:any species facing imminent extirpation or extinction;
  • "Threatened" species:any species likely to become endangered if limiting factors affecting it are not reversed;
  • "Of special concern" species: any species raising concerns because of characteristics that make it particularly sensitive to human activity or to certain natural phenomena.

COSEWIC submits its species assessment to the Minister of the Environment, who, in collaboration with the other competent ministers if necessary, initiates the process of adding the species to the List of Wildlife Species at Risk.

For more information, please visit the COSEWIC Web site at the following address:


1.2. Wildlife species listing process

Once COSEWIC has determined that a wildlife species is "at risk", the first step to ensure its protection is to add it to the List of Wildlife Species at Risk, otherwise, it will not benefit from SARA protection. When COSEWIC submits its assessment to the Minister of the Environment, the Minister must produce a recommendation and present it to the Governor in Council (GIC). Within nine months of receiving the COSEWIC assessment (from the Minister of the Environment), GIC must react to the report and recommendation in one of the following ways:

  1. accept the assessment and add the species to the List of Wildlife Species at Risk;
  2. decide not to add the species to the List of Wildlife Species at Risk;
  3. return the assessment to COSEWIC for further information or consideration.

After nine months, if the Governor in Council has not make any decision, the Minister of the Environment will have to add the species to the List of Wildlife Species at Risk, as recommended by COSEWIC.

The Governor in Council's decision will initially be based on the advice of COSEWIC, which is based on the biological status of the species. However, in order to make an informed decision, the Government of Canada must assess other factors such as the social and economic impacts that could occur from adding a species to the List of Wildlife Species at Risk. This consultation is an opportunity for concerned Canadians to express their point of view and voice their concerns on this issue.

Once a species is listed as "extirpated", "endangered" or "threatened", two processes are triggered. Initially, a series of prohibitions are adopted to protect the species, and in order to begin its recovery, a recovery strategy and an action plan are developed. In the case of the species "of special concern", no prohibition applies, but a management plan must be developed, and the potential impacts of the threats identified on the species must be monitored.

1.3. Protection

Under the terms of SARA, Fisheries and Oceans Canada must ensure the protection of all aquatic species at risk. When a species is added to the List of Wildlife Species at Risk with an "extirpated", "endangered" or "threatened" status, prohibitions are automatically applied. The Act prohibits the killing, harming, harassing, capturing or taking of any individual belonging to that species. It also prohibits people from possessing, collecting, buying, selling or trading individuals of a species at risk. As well, the Act prohibits the damage or destruction of the residence or any part of the species' critical habitat, as defined within a recovery strategy or an action plan.

It should be noted that these prohibitions prescribed by SARA for "extirpated", "endangered" or "threatened" status do not apply to "special concern" species. However, protection measures provided by other laws and regulations still apply. Furthermore, a management plan must be developed in collaboration and consultation with other stakeholders in order to expose in detail the conservation measures for the species and its habitat.

1.4. Recovery planning and management plan

The goal of the recovery process for "extirpated", "endangered" or "threatened" species is to limit the causes of decline for that species by putting emphasis on stewardship and public awareness, among other things. First, a recovery strategy is prepared containing recovery objectives and strategies that are developed according to the threats on the species. Thereafter, an action plan is developed, which details the actions flowing from the recovery strategy. These two documents must indicate the critical habitat of the species as well as activities that might potentially destroy it. The program must include a schedule of the researches to be undertaken in case of a lack of knowledge. Once the critical habitat has been identified, the competent Minister must make sure there are legal tools to protect this critical habitat.

Planning the recovery of a species requires teamwork. The competent Minister must therefore gather federal, provincial or territorial government ministers, management boards,   Aboriginal organizations, landowners, and other people likely to be interested in the recovery of the species, and consult with them during the development of the recovery strategy, which is a continuous process. The competent Minister must also prepare a report on the implementation of the recovery strategy, and the progress made towards meeting its objectives every 5 years.

In the case of a "special concern" species, a management plan must be developed. It differs from a recovery strategy and an action plan because it establishes objectives and goals aiming at maintaining sustainable population levels for a species that is particularly sensitive to environmental factors, but is not endangered.

In collaboration with various stakeholders, the competent Minister must prepare a management plan within the three years after registering a wildlife species as being "of special concern". When preparing the action plan, the competent Minister can adopt an approach based on several species or on ecosystems. Like recovery strategies, management plans are dynamic documents that can be modified to add new data.

Once the recovery strategies, action plans, or management plans are developed, they are published on the Public Registry (see next section). Anyone can make comments to the competent Minister in writing concerning the recovery strategy, the action plan, or the management plan for a listed animal or plant species. The general public has 60 days, after publication of the strategy or the plans in the Registry, to inform the Minister of their position. Within 30 days of the closing of the public commentary period, the proposed management plan must be completed. Management plans are assessed every five years and upgraded when needed.

1.5. Public Registry

The SARA Public Registry, available on the Internet, is a complete source of information on issues covered by the Act giving access to public records concerning the administration of SARA. It is a key instrument in allowing the government to respect its commitment to support public contribution in the environmental decision making process.

The Registry includes various documents, such as regulations, orders, agreements, guidelines, standards and codes of practice. Furthermore, it contains status reports, recovery strategies, action plans, as well as management plans. The Public Registry can be found at the following address:


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Information on Fin Whale

Status: Species of special concern.

Last COSEWIC assessment: May 2005.

2.1. Distribution and migration of fin whale

Fin whale is a deep-water cetacean that can be found in every ocean of the world. However, it is more abundant at temperate and polar latitudes. It can be encountered in coastal waters but occurs most often in the open sea. It seems to be absent in most equatorial areas or floe edges. Northern hemisphere fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus physalus) and those from the southern hemisphere (B. p. quoyi) are likely geographically isolated sub-species, and are distinct at the reproductive level as well. Morphological differences distinguish them. Two distinct populations can be found in Canadian waters, one in the Pacific and the other in the Atlantic.

Fin whale is a migrating species that spends the summer in the northern waters rich in food between Baffin Bay, in Canada, and Cape Hatteras in North Carolina. The winter distribution range of fin whale is not well known. It travelled the waters between the coast and the continental shelf of the Newfoundland Grand Banks all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. Generally, their summering area is not as spread out as their wintering area. Still, the distribution range limits of this cetacean throughout the year are not well documented.

In the Canadian Atlantic, different summering aggregations are spread out in the Estuary and Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Bay of Fundy, the costal and offshore waters of Newfoundland, off the coast of Labrador up to Davis Strait, and on the Scotian Shelf. During the summering period, from June to the fall, the fin whale is the most commonly seen large whale in the Bay of Fundy and on the Scotian Shelf. It seems that the Newfoundland and Nova Scotia stocks migrate south in winter, with the Newfoundland stock occupying the area vacated by the Nova Scotia stock, which migrates further south. In winter, certain individuals stay along the Atlantic coast of Nova Scotia.

In the Estuary of St. Lawrence, near Tadoussac, 88 individuals were photo identified by a team of scientists between 1986 and 2001. Of this number, approximately 30% are considered seasonal residents because they have been seen almost every year. The rest of them are considered regular or occasional visitors. Downstream, along the northern coast of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, over 300 fin whales were photo identified since the early 1980s.

2.2. Biology and behaviour of fin whale

2.2.1. Morphology

Second largest cetacean in the world after the blue whale, the Atlantic fin whale is smaller than its congeners in the southern hemisphere and reaches an average length of 24 m, with an average weight between 40 and 50 tons. Females are usually larger than males. They have slender and hydrodynamic bodies, allowing them to swim at great speeds. Their backs are dark grey to brownish grey, and their stomachs white. Fin whale is different from other species because of the nonsymmetric colouration of its lower jaw (darker on the left side) and baleens (yellowish band on the right side, in front, and the rest a greyish blue).

2.2.2. Reproduction

For the fin whale, sexual maturity is usually reached at about 6-7 years of age for females and 7-8 years of age for males (for an average length of 17.2 m). Breeding and calving appear to occur in the winter in lower latitudes. Females give birth to a single calf (of approximately 6 m) after an 11 or 12-month gestation period, and weaning occurs 6-7 months later. The interval between two births is estimated at about 2½years. The fin whale population could reproduce at an annual rate of 8 calves per 100 adult females. However, the survival rate of calves and juveniles is still mostly unknown.

2.2.3. Social behaviour and relationships among species

The bond between the mother and her young appears to end during the weaning period, and there doesn’t seem to be any lasting bond between individuals of a same population. However, there have been animals that have created temporary associations especially during movements (2-7 individuals) and at feeding sites (2 or more).

Distribution ranges and a common diet bring together different species of baleen whales. It is not rare to come across groups made up of large whales (blue and fin), and a certain number of hybrid individuals have been identified in the Northern Atlantic, particularly in Iceland. In overlapping areas, it is likely that this species shares the same food resources as other whale species. For example, there could be competition between humpback and fin whales in feeding areas harbouring schools of capelin, if this resource was limited.

2.2.4. Diet

The variety in the fin whale diet is as much a question of prey availability as it is a question of preference. This flexible dietary strategy allows the animal to change target if one particular prey diminishes. In a similar situation, a stenophagous species (restricted diet) such as the blue whale is clearly at a disadvantage. In the Northern Atlantic, the main prey for fin whales is small invertebrates, schools of fish and squid. In Canadian waters, they mostly feed on krill, capelin, and in a lesser degree, on Atlantic herring. Fin whales that are found in the St. Lawrence Estuary would benefit from the great concentration of krill and capelin found at the mouth of the Saguenay River. Capelin appear to be the main prey for fin whales found off the coast of Newfoundland, while those found in the Bay of Fundy feed mainly on krill. Fin whales have been seen feeding on herring off the coast of Nova Scotia.

2.2.5. Habitat

According to the SARA definition, a “habitat” could include: calving, rearing and feeding areas, as well as migration routes on which the species’ survival depends, during the annual cycle and for each age and gender class. Unfortunately, the fin whale data collected so far focuses more on summer nursing areas than on wintering areas.

If fin whales travel a lot in coastal waters during the summer, some individuals could reach open water and the south in winter. The geographic distribution of fin whales suggests a preference, during summer, for areas where surface water temperature is cooler such as in the Bay of Fundy and for upwelling areas. Along the coasts, they feed on sites with rich concentrations of prey, such as at the head of the Laurentian Channel (St. Lawrence Estuary). Eastern Nova Scotia would have enough food to feed fin whales during the entire year.

It is difficult to describe changes to a habitat (drop in productivity, increased competition, etc.) for an aquatic, migrating and pelagic species like the fin whale. This animal appears to possess the physical capacity to travel great distances in order to find adequate parcels. Factors that are likely to change the habitat area have probably more to do with changes in productivity on a more global scale. The quality and size of the habitat also depend on interactions between the species, its prey and its competitors.

2.2.6. Communication

The fin whale vocalizes a lot. It emits low frequency sounds that can travel hundreds, even thousands of kilometres. Vocalization could be used to announce southward migration in the fall, and northern migration at the end of winter. Individuals found on the Scotian Shelf emit louder songs towards the end of August, all through fall and in the middle of winter. In the North Pacific, signals (20 Hz) used by fin whales are linked to male reproductive behaviour. It is possible that fin whales use earth’s magnetic field to find their way during migration.

2.3. Why has COSEWIC given the Fin Whale “special concern” status?

Here is the reason for the fin whale status designation by COSEWIC:

As of the late 19th century, whaling techniques improved and enabled the capture of fin whales (a very fast species whose body sinks after death). For almost a century, stocks were over-exploited and therefore dangerously reduced. The abundance of these whales was not measured until the beginning of the whaling industry. However, we do know that more than 13,337 fin whales were killed near Newfoundland and Labrador between 1903 and 1945, and that the Nova Scotia stock felt the pressure from whaling between 1964 and 1971. The most reliable and recent assessment is from 1999 and estimated that 2,814 individuals could be found between Georges Bank (N.S.) and the mouth of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and 380 individuals inside the Gulf. Even though whaling activities have been interrupted in Canada since 1971, several man-made threats are potentially harmful for fin whales.

2.4. What are the threats to the fin whale?

A degradation of the habitat caused by a drop in prey availability, and a decline in fitness brought on by chemical pollution enters into the category of limiting factors, while accidental catches, collisions and noise disturbance represent threats. Studies are nonetheless necessary in order to properly define and understand the impact of these elements on the recovery and sustainability of the species.

2.4.1. Limiting factors

Reductions in prey abundance

The habitat of large whales is intimately linked to prey distribution. Any reduction in a prey’s availability can consequently be perceived as a reduction in habitat. The phenomenons that can lead directly or indirectly to a reduction in prey are climatic changes, interspecific competition and commercial fishing.

Chemical contamination

There apparently isn’t any proof that baleen whales suffer from the toxic effects of metal or organochlorine contamination of their environment. However, other marine mammals appear to be affected by immunotoxic chemical products. The known effects of these pollutants on animals are: a reduction or change to the immune response, reproductive disorders, lesions and cancers. The organochlorine contamination rate of certain fin whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence is nonetheless high enough to generate some concern but lower than levels recorded 20 years earlier. The contamination rate could vary according to the geographic area.

2.4.2. Threats

Entanglement in fishing gear

After whaling, which is now forbidden in Canadian waters, entanglement in fishing gear appears to be the most significant threat for fin whales. However, it is difficult to evaluate the consequences because, first of all, the number of accidental catches seems to be underestimated either because they aren’t being reported or because the individual couldn’t be identified or was never found. Secondly, fin whales appear to be less susceptible to entanglement than their congeners (blue whale, mink whale) because of their smaller appendage and their strength. Finally, because fin whales don’t expose their bodies as much during their dives, net or cable marks often remain hidden from the observer. Some cases of fin whale entanglement have been reported and some were even fatal. More than on the Pacific coast, the population of eastern Canada has seen its distribution range cross over fishery areas, which increases the risks.

Collisions with vessels

Fin whales are the most common victims of collisions with long and fast commercial ships. Many ships have been sighted with a carcass on their bow. Collisions are not all fatal but the numbers are likely underestimated because the bodies of these whales usually sink when they die. It is estimated that 4% of living individuals that have been photo identified have marks from accidents with ships. Because they are accustomed to the noise produced by these ships in heavy traffic areas, their vigilance might be somewhat reduced and this may cause accidents. Heavier traffic as well as the increase of ship sizes represents an additional threat for fin whales. This would be the case in the St. Lawrence Seaway, which is the main access way for commercial fleets on the east coast of North America and in the area of the port of Halifax.

Noise pollution

Ambient noise levels in the ocean have increased significantly globally over the past century. Noise produced by commercial vessels, detonations from seismic exploration, and all other low frequency noise are likely to produce behavioural and physical changes in fin whales. The distance between the noise source and the animal, the emission frequency, the intensity and duration of the noise, the recurrence of noisy events, and the whale’s hearing ability and degree of habituation are all factors that interact and determine the extent of the impact.

In response to certain noises, whales can interrupt their feeding and mating activities, divert their route, or abandon a critical habitat. Recurring sounds, even at low intensities, could produce chronic stress and have long-term health impacts on individuals. In the case of very loud noises, or when the noise source is close, the animal could experience reduced hearing sensitivity or hearing loss. Manmade noise can also overshadow (mask) sounds that fin whales need to hear to breed, feed, or navigate.

Seismic exploration and oil and gas development

Sounds emitted by seismic exploration and oil and gas development, in addition to being responsible for physical harm, would cause fin whales to avoid these areas and interrupt their dives (the noise level being lower near the surface). The impact of this type of development raises a number of questions, particularly when it comes to sound travelling over great distances in underwater environments. The issue concerns mostly fin whale populations because of potentially high hydrocarbon sectors spilling over areas harbouring heavy concentrations of the species.


Although it has been interrupted in Canada, whaling continues in the North Atlantic, notably in Greenland (subsistence harvest) and eventually in Iceland (which is interested in resuming this activity).

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Overview of potential consequences for different stakeholders

This consultation workbook was designed so that the different stakeholders can better understand the implications on their activities of adding fin whale (Atlantic population) to the List of Species at Risk as a species “of special concern”.

After listing, a management plan should be developed in collaboration with the industries and different interest groups. This management plan could include awareness measures, developing “good practices”, or more restrictive measures with consequences on the activities of related stakeholders. In order to better illustrate this fact, listed below are a few examples of possible consequences. Obviously, this is not an extensive list of measures and is not necessarily a representation of what will actually become the adopted measures.

The whale watching industry could be subject to stricter regulations. These regulations could focus on increasing the minimum distance to be maintained between whales and boats, reducing boat speeds near blue whales, or reducing the amount of time tour boats can spend near fin whales.

In a similar context, the industry of commercial or recreational boating could contribute by finding a navigation corridor that would divert ships from areas where fin whales are found in abundance. Research vessels could be required to conform to stricter guidelines since protection of the fin whale could restrict the kind of research allowed in areas that are deemed vital for this marine mammal.

With regards to seismic exploration and oil and gas development, different and/or more detailed guidelines could be developed: partial or complete exclusion areas, temporal restrictions of exploration and exploitation activities during certain periods of the year, having automated acoustic whale detection systems, calling on independent observers, or any other suitable measure.

The fishing industry could experience restrictions with regard to the use of certain fishing gear, or have limited access to specific sectors according to the time of year. The commercial exploitation of krill, which could potentially increase, could contribute to find solutions for sharing the resource where fin whales feed.

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Let us know what you think

By answering the following questions you will help the federal government understand the benefits and impacts of adding the fin whale to the SARAList.

Please fill out the questionnaire that follows and send us your answers either by mail

Species at Risk Coordination Office
Maurice Lamontagne Institute
Fisheries and Oceans Canada
P.O. Box 1000
850 route de la Mer
Mont-Joli, Québec
G5H 3Z4

by fax: (418) 775-0542

or by e-mail: especesperilqc@dfo-mpo.gc.ca

The deadline for receiving comments is Dec 31, 2005.


For questions or comments concerning the Species at Risk Act or concerning this consultation process, please write to us at the address given above or call us at 1 877 775-0848.

Name :
Affiliation (if applicable):
Question 1
Briefly describe your business line or your interest concerning the fin whale (use of shoreline, agriculture, urbanization, etc.)




 Question 2a
Based on what you know about the Species at Risk Act, do you think the addition of the fin whale will have a positive or negative impact on your activities? (revenues, turnover, opportunities, number of jobs, hours worked, etc. ) Explain.  




Question 2b
On the other hand, do you think that not adding the fin whale would have a positive or negative impact on your activities? ( revenues, turnover, opportunities, number of jobs, hours worked, etc. ) Explain.     Question 3a
Based on what you know about the Species at Risk Act, do you think the addition of the fin whale will have a positive or negative impact on other activities (commercial fishing, sport fishing, other industries, communities, etc.)? Explain.     





Question 3b
On the other hand, do you think that not adding the fin whale would have a positive or negative impact on other activities? (commercial fishing, sport fishing, other industries, communities etc.)? Explain.    



Question 4
According to you, can these positive or negative impacts progress with time? Explain.    





Question 5
If you indicated negative impacts, do you have suggestions in order to minimize them?     





Question 6
In order for SARA to be really effective, the recovery of species at risk must be a joint effort, carried out in collaboration with all interested parties. According to you, how can the interested parties best be involved?    





Question 7
How could you contribute to the recovery of the fin whale as an individual, company or institution? Can you give a few examples of activities?     Question 8 a) Are you in favour of the Canadian government adding the fin whale to the Species at Risk Act list?

Yes  No  Don’t know  Yes, but







b)Check an answer for each statement below:

I believe this species is precious because it plays a significant role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem.     
I believe this species is precious for future generations.     
I value this species even though I may never see one.      
I believe this species needs protection or particular attention against interaction with humans and/or their activities.     
I believe that protecting this species will have a positive impact on my leisure, employment or personal activities.      
I believe that adding this species to the official list might limit my leisure, employment or personal activities.     


Question 9
Do you have any other comments or concerns?





Thank you for contributing


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