The outlaw Roland Maw, the man who quit the Alaska Board of Fisheries in 2105 and then led a willing Anchorage Daily News to suggest that his resignation had something to do with Kenai fish wars, appeared unafraid of that combat zone when he appeared before the body on Sunday to explain how to handle the latest battle.
Maw is still awaiting trial on multiple felony charges that accuse him of stealing from the state’s Permanent Fund. The reason he resigned in 2015 was to try to hide the fact he was a resident of Montana or at least claiming to be one.
After Montana found out he was also claiming to be an Alaskan, it prosecuted Maw for illegally obtaining resident hunting licenses. In that case, Maw conceded to being a liar, which led to a fine and his temporary loss of hunting and fishing privileges in both Alaska and Montana.
Maw’s problems in Montana eventually led the state of Alaska to investigate his various Alaska residency claims. That eventually led to 12 felony charges against him related to fraudulently obtaining Permanent Fund Dividends and otherwise lying about his Alaska residency on official documents.
An attorney for Maw has tried every legal trick in the book over the course of the last four years to keep an Alaska jury from hearing the case. Maw’s trial, according to several attorneys, may now be the most delayed in state criminal history. It is at this time set for March 9 in Juneau, but if the past is any precedent, Maw will find some way to again delay it.
The crux of his defense is that all his actions were done electronically and someone else must have gotten onto his computer to commit the bad acts. There has, however, been no offer of evidence that he refunded to the state any PFD money that mysteriously showed up in his bank account.
Despite his legal troubles, the commercial driftnet fisherman and one-time executive director of United Cook Inlet Drifters Association (UCIDA) – the region’s most powerful commercial fishing lobby – has stayed active in Alaska fishery politics.
He was intimately involved in the efforts of former Gov. Bill Walker to end-run the management Board long ago created by the Legislature to try to minimize political involvement in the issues of allocation of fish between competing state user groups, mainly commercial fishermen.
At that time, the fights were primarily between various gear types: purse seiners, trollers, drift gillnetters and set gillnetters. Since then, subsistence fishermen, personal-use dipnetters and anglers have all entered the fight, and the latter two groups have become prime adversaries of drift and set gillnetters in the Inlet that surges southwest from downtown Anchorage.
The commercial interests catch most of the fish. The Anchorage metro area is home to more than half the state’s population, many of them dipnetters or anglers who don’t think they’re getting a fair share of those fish.
In his testimony to the Board, Maw suggested the state strayed off the “railroad tracks” of sound management when it started stuffing the Kenai River with salmon. The presention was a little hard to follow. His written testimony might be more clear.
Maw there takes issue with the Bayesian statistical method being used to forecast returns, arguing that “we are now experiencing some of the smallest returns in recent history including, in 2019, the smallest sockeye return in over 40 years. The forecast for 2020. If new information about the status of the fry population in the Kenai system is correct, no one will be allowed to harvest Kenai River salmon in a couple of years; no dipnetting, no sportfishing and no commercial fishing.”
The 2020 forecast calls for a return of 2.2 million salmon to the Kenai – 1.4 million less than the 20-year average. The forecast is largely based upon the number and size of fry rearing in Skilak Lake.
The 26.1 million fry in the lake in 2016, the parent year for the bulk of the 2020 run, were more plentiful than the 20-year average 19.3 million, but smaller at an average weight of 0.8 grams versus 1.0 grams), according to the forecast.
Larger fry are generally expected to have better survival odds than smaller fry, but nature doesn’t always hue to general expectations.
Scientists studying salmon in the Salish Sea off the shores of the state of Washington and the Canadian province of British Columbia reported in November that “the prevailing assumption that ‘bigger is better’ may be true in many circumstances, but there is evidence that populations of smaller juvenile salmon survive at higher rates than larger fish during their first several months at sea.”
The 2.2 million return is low by modern standards, though not so by the standards of the 1970s. And it is more than adequate to support sport and personal-use fisheries.
Even that low return of 1.7 million sockeye in 2018 – a return 800,000 fish short of the forecast – would have had plenty of fish to support sport and personal-use fisheries if not for an early commercial harvest which cropped off a sizable chunk of the run.
With the 2018 run forecast at 2.5 million fish, Fish and Game expected a non-commercial harvest (dipnetters and anglers) of about 700,000 sockeye. Those dipnet and sport fisheries are capable of catching more fish than that, but only when large numbers get through to the Kenai.
In years of expected weak returns, like this one, the number of fish allowed to escape nets to make it into the river is reduced (the escapement goal was lowered to 900,000 in 2018) and non-commercial harvests decline.
Give the data including 2018, a claim that the Kenai is headed toward a production level that would force a prohibition on all fishing can only be described as fear-mongering. And Maw’s basic argument against the new models, which are arguably as bad or as good as the old models in trying to predict a future full of variables that cannot be anticipated, is that state fisheries managers with their fancy math just can’t be trusted.
“The models are mathematically driven,” Maw said. “Mathematical models cannot incorporate field observations of run size, age composition, weights (fry, smolt and adult), run timing, health, vigor, climate change effects, and spawning success that all come into the stock assessment process.”
Mathematical models actually can incorporate much of that data of it is available. Some is and some isn’t.
At a population level, the health and vigor of a salmon population is hard to determine exactly and climate change effects are largely an unknown. A warming ocean in the 2010s was expected to reduce salmon production but instead production is at record levels although that of some species – Kenai sockeye among them – has decreased.
No one knows why, but the decline appears to be linked to ocean survival given the weakness of most sockeye systems in the northeast Gulf of Alaska. The Susitna River to the north of the Kenai is forecast to see a return significantly below the 20-year average, too, although it has seen low escapements for decades now.
They have not produced the bigger runs of fish Maw and other UCIDA members envision. If the Susitna is indicative, it’s probable that lowering the number of Kenai spawners would only lower the number of returning fish.
Still, Maw and his UCIDA comrades could be right with their pitch that the Kenai has seen some sizable salmon returns at escapements of 600,000 to 800,000; so lower the spawning goal and let us catch more fish in our nets.
As Maw notes, only mathematicians can trust fancy math.
“It’s very difficult for non-statisticians to argue the details of the Bayesian methodology in particular applications,” he said. “But we can all clearly observe the reduction of the Kenai late river-run sockeye returns as escapement and in-river goals have been increased.”
Or at least those who want to see that can observe it. There are plenty of ways of looking at the data and seeing something else. This isn’t as simple as 2 +2 = 4 because of all the variables involved.
So basically, at the end of the day, Maw’s presentation came down to whether Alaskans should trust UCIDA, and defacto leader Maw, pumping up the many times debunked over-escapement theory, or state biologists.
Who would you trust?