The population of Larsen Bay has been decreasing for decades, and now it looks like the village could see its only school close for the first time in its history because of a lack of students. Many residents agree it has to do with the right to fish for salmon.
Holding bright yellow bags, students from Larsen Bay School run down the village’s dirt roads looking for trash. It’s the last day of school before summer break, and they’re spending it doing a spring cleanup.
As the kids scramble around outside, it’s quiet back at the school. And there’s a good chance it’ll stay that way for the foreseeable future because, most likely, it won’t have enough students to open in the fall.
“I’m sad I’m the last one, but I’m happy I’m graduating. So, I can move on to a different chapter.” Gayle Aga said. Aga was the only person to graduate high school this year in Larsen Bay and could be the last, which made her graduation a big event.
“Everyone knew that I was going to be the last one till whenever, and a lot of people showed up and even people I didn’t even know,” Gayle said.
“This is the gym. We just had graduation. It was awesome.” Alice Aga said as she walks through the building. She’s an aide at the school and is reflecting on how Larsen Bay used to be known for its sports teams, but now it’s ending the year with less than ten students. Alice points to past awards to show this.
“Here’s the trophy case,” Alice said. “Like the 80s was the highlight of Larsen Bay —school that is. They were like basketball, volleyball, wrestling, you know, everything.”
Until recently, Alice was the community’s mayor and sat on its tribal council. But now, she’s stepping down from those positions because she’s leaving.
“Well you know if there’s no school here, I can’t stay,” Alice said. “I can’t play the waiting game. You know, like, I can’t home-school my kids, that’s a whole full-time job and I just can’t do that. You know, I need to make a living.”
In Alaska, schools need at least ten students to receive around $300,000 in state funding, which Larsen Bay School needs to open. Right now, the school only has two kids officially enrolled for next year, which is why Alice is moving to Kodiak and enrolling her kids there, which makes her tear up.
“I think I’m still in denial about the whole thing right now. I’ll probably…probably break down, you know, once I get to Kodiak,” Alice said. “It’s tough. This is home, our whole life is changing.”
Even though Larsen Bay School isn’t officially closed yet, people around the community are doing the math and know it’s a long shot that they’ll have enough kids to open the school, which many see as another sign the community is shrinking.
“The young people move away and the old people are dying.” Jack Wick chuckled. Wick has lived in Larsen Bay for decades and remembers when there were plenty of people living there and the main profession was commercial fishing. But he says that began to change in the 1970s.
“Everybody fished. Even if you were a crewman you knew you could work your way up to be a skipper,” Wick said. “So, after limited entry, a lot of them realized they wouldn’t be able to get a boat”
Alaska introduced limited entry permits in 1975, which is a policy that restricts the number of people who can commercially fish for salmon, and other fish. At its peak, only around ten Larsen Bay residents had permits to run boats, but now it’s down to less than half that because people left the village, sold their permits or their permits were canceled.
In the Kodiak region, the price of a salmon permit has ranged anywhere between a few thousand to over a hundred thousand dollars. That price tag can make it hard for people to get into commercial fishing, which is why Wick and others in Larsen Bay believe this policy is partially to blame for Larsen Bay going from having around 200 people in the 80s, to about 60 full-time residents today.
“The people in, like, Larsen Bay and other villages didn’t have the money to compete and buy the equipment to get into those fisheries,” Wick said. “So they just started getting into other things, going to school becoming something else other than fishermen.”
The exodus of youth from Larsen Bay is causing some to worry the community’s becoming a “retirement village.” And that eventually, people will only come out in the summer for the fishing season or to vacation at local hunting lodges.
The walls of Larsen Bay School are lined with the names of past students. These names follow you around the building as a reminder of all the people who’ve also passed through its halls. That sense of history isn’t lost on Gayle Aga as she thinks about the school’s future.
“I just never thought it’d be closing because I didn’t think it’d be real,” Gayle said.
That prospect is real though, but Gayle may not be around to see how the school closure will affect Larsen Bay in the long run. Like so many before her, Gayle’s planning to leave the village and head to college in the coming year.