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Board profile: From Big Sky Country to the Last Frontier

Montana-raised Roland Maw arrived in Alaska in 1971 for a cannery job. His love of the state brought him back each year until his retirement when he made it his full-time home.

by | December 12, 2023

Roland and Alaine Maw
Roland Maw (right) with his wife, Alaine. Photo provided by Roland Maw

Roland Maw has an infectious, light-hearted chuckle. It was the first thing I noticed when I first met him nearly eleven years ago at a Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association Board of Directors meeting.

Once I got to know him better, I realized that beneath his jovial demeanor is an incredibly educated and inquisitive man. He cares deeply for not only the salmon resource of Cook Inlet but also for the users of that resource.

Roland’s formative years

Roland grew up on a 40,000-acre cattle ranch in Montana. He knew from a young age that he wanted to work in natural resources. “I love math and I love plants and animals,” said Roland.

This interest led him to Weber State College where he earned his Bachelor of Science degree with dual majors in zoology and botany. It was there that Roland discovered his love for teaching, becoming a lab assistant for one of the zoology professors. In 1970, Roland earned a Master of Education degree from Brigham Young University. 

The lure of Alaska

In the summer of 1971, Roland ventured north to Alaska. His brother, Jim, was living in Alaska and he told Roland he had a job lined up for him at the Whitney-Fidelgo Cannery on Ship Creek in Anchorage.  Roland ended up managing the dock and the loading cases of canned fish onto railroad cars. 

“Seeing some of those big salmon come to the dock was pretty amazing for an individual that was used to fishing little brook trout,” Roland remembers. 

Roland moved his family up to Alaska for a few years before moving again to Alberta, Canada to teach at Lethbridge College in their Environmental Sciences program. He went on to obtain his Ph.D. at the University of Alberta in Forestry and Wildlife Management in 1988. 

Travel to China

Because of Roland’s expertise and his love of teaching and helping others, he has had many amazing opportunities over the years. One opportunity came about while he was still completing his Ph.D. program—a six week scientific exchange trip to China in 1986. “This was three years before Tiananmen Square,” Roland described, emphasizing the closed nature of China at that time, especially for foreigners. 

The trip required coordination and funding among the University of Alberta, the City of Edmonton, the Province of Alberta, the World Wildlife Fund, as well as the Canadian and U.S. governments and the Chinese government. The travelers had letters of introductions to assist with their ability to travel to China. Fun fact: Roland’s letter of introduction from the World Wildlife Fund was signed by none other than Prince Phillip!

Each of the sponsors of the trip wanted the travelers to look at specific issues or areas, such as what could be done to help the Chinese in the area of forestry management. The group went all over China, including Mongolia and the Takla Makan Desert. “When we went there, we divided the resource sector into three main parts—I was to do all the mammals, reptiles, and vascular plants, like trees and shrubs.” It was Roland’s job to know those resources well enough to identify them on site and describe the habitats they were in, leading to an understanding of knowledge gaps. 

Listening to Roland describe this trip, it was obvious that he enjoyed meeting the people of China as much as he did documenting the resources. He shared a story of visiting a nature reserve that had streams in the foothills. Roland had packed a fly rod with him so he asked the park superintendent if he could go fly fishing—an activity that was totally unknown to the superintendent. With a number of Chinese onlookers, Roland was given permission to fish. He got his fly rod together and went down to a creek.

Roland then proceeded to catch a trout on his first cast, astounding his Chinese audience!  “That superintendent looked at me, and looked at me, and looked at me, in total disbelief at what he had just seen. So I caught a second and third trout,” Roland said. 

He asked the superintendent if he wanted to try fishing. The superintendent caught his first little trout on a fly rod that day. Roland ended up giving his fly rod, flies, and case they came in to this man, who was touched by the gift. 

A return to Alaska fisheries

Even while Roland was busy building his academic career and expanding his professional and civic participation, he kept coming back to Alaska annually, building a parallel commercial fishing career. He met long-time fisherman, Tony Western, on his first trip to Alaska. Tony was instrumental in Roland’s path to becoming a Cook Inlet commercial salmon fisherman. 

Tony had recently lost his boat in an accident in Kodiak, so he asked Roland if he wanted to go in on a boat with him. Together they purchased the F/V Little Lady.  After a few years, they sold the boat and they each bought their own boats, and Roland continued salmon fishing. 

Roland has also fished for halibut and Pacific cod and tendered salmon in Prince William Sound and Chignik. 

Providing inseason salmon run data for fisheries management, Roland ran the Lower Cook Inlet offshore test boat for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for 12 years. 

By 2001, Roland had retired from a long career teaching at Lethbridge College and he and his wife Alaine moved to their Kasilof property. Roland has continued to stay involved in various environmental and fisheries organizations including an appointment by the U.S. Department of State to the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission and serving as the Executive Director at the United Cook Inlet Drift Association (UCIDA) for a number of years. 

Roland has served eight years on the CIAA Board of Directors, starting off as an alternate for one of the Inlet Wide Commercial Fisherman Representative seats. Roland currently represents UCIDA on the board. 

Reflections on CIAA’s successes and challenges

When I asked Roland about his thoughts on CIAA’s successes and challenges, his answers reflected the complexity of trying to focus on what is best for the salmon resource in an environment that has become driven more by politics than science. “I never thought politics would have so much to do with my biology and science background.” 

He said that CIAA has kept the salmon resource at the forefront of its mission. So much so that CIAA has also been performing projects that should be performed by other government agencies that are unable to do so. These projects include inseason salmon monitoring to give fisheries managers data to open harvest opportunities. 

Roland was also saddened by what he perceives as interests focused on shutting down salmon aquaculture. He believes that salmon aquaculture has a valuable role in providing salmon fisheries.

One more fun fact about Roland—he coauthored a book entitled “Fishing Canada’s Mountain Parks” with James Butler. He definitely has an enthusiasm for trout. Similar to how birders have life lists of birds they want to see, Roland has a cutthroat and rainbow trout life list—he loves to see these fish, whether catching them or not, and he has only one more left to complete his list.

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