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Will salmon-dependent Aleutians village get disaster funds, too?

Hannah HeimbuchThe Arctic Sounder

As fisheries disasters are declared around Alaska for areas affected by low king salmon returns, Nelson Lagoon residents are still waiting to hear if their low sockeye returns will qualify for a similar state.

The Aleutians East Borough asked the governor's office to declare a disaster in the salmon-dependent Nelson Lagoon for the 2010-2012 sockeye salmon fishing seasons, which marked a dramatic decline from past seasons.

In 2011 the Lagoon's sockeye harvest was just under 75,000, as compared to the previous five years average of more than 216,000.

The entire North and South Peninsula, said AEB Natural Resources Director Ernie Weiss, saw salmon harvests decline 65.8 percent in 2012, as compared to the previous five-year average.

"The main reason that we only asked for a disaster declaration for (Nelson Lagoon) is that they are dependent solely on sockeye salmon," Weiss said. "The other AEB communities have groundfish, crab etc. to fall back on, and the numbers for that small local fishery in (Nelson Lagoon) were easy to isolate and compare to the 5-year average."

The governor's office has responded by saying they will look into the matter, Weiss said, as requested by the borough assembly and the Nelson Lagoon Tribal Council.

Most of Nelson Lagoon's residents are self-employed and do not qualify for unemployment benefits. Residents leaving for other communities in recent years led to the shut down of the public school in Nelson Lagoon.

"With the last three years of poor fishing in Nelson Lagoon," Weiss said, "and the closing of the school at the end of the 2011-2012 school year, it's hard not to view (Nelson Lagoon) as a dying community, and the AEB wants to do everything we can to turn that around."

Federal regulations state that a 35 to 80 percent annual harvest decline may qualify a community for a disaster declaration. The governor declared just such a disaster in Nelson Lagoon in 1998 after dramatic declines in the salmon fishery.

This article was originally published in The Bristol Bay Times and is reprinted here with permission. Hannah Heimbuch can be reached at hheimbuch(at)reportalaska.com.