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A vibrant sound is now dead silent

The Exxon Valdez spill killed the herring and the livelihood of an Alaskan village. Its townspeople still await a legal settlement.

February 27, 2008|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

CORDOVA, ALASKA — By way of telling his story, and the story of this fishing village, Mike Maxwell -- born, raised and hoping to die here -- wants to talk about what happened to the herring.

They were the little kings of the sea in these parts. They ran so thick in Prince William Sound that some days, it was said, you could walk on the water stepping on their silvery-blue backs.

When the Exxon Valdez spilled its oil in March 1989, the world saw images of blackened seabirds and otters and seals, of bloated whale carcasses and once-pristine beaches covered with crude. Hardly anything was said about the herring.

No one at the time understood the fish's central place in the ecosystem, nor did anyone know the herring's demise would lead to years of hardship for the people here.

"It's scary what we didn't know," says Maxwell, 47, a scruffy, balding, big-boned man with a small voice.

The herring disappeared four years after the spill -- long after intense public scrutiny had faded and the story line had devolved into squabbling between lawyers.

Exxon claimed the region recovered quickly. Government scientists, however, said oil remained and was still working its way through the ecosystem in a process that would last decades. At the back of a local tavern, hand-scrawled graffiti expresses a common sentiment here: "Oil spills are forever."

In December, nearly 19 years after the spill, scientists published the most definitive study of its kind linking Exxon oil with the collapse of the herring population. Oil killed adult herring, but more significantly, it damaged eggs and larvae.

Surviving fish developed lesions in their livers. Larvae hatched prematurely and never grew to their full 8 or 9 inches. They showed depressed immune systems, which made them susceptible to disease.

The population, which used to be scooped up by the millions of tons, never recovered and, from indications, may never return.

Countless species, including salmon, depended on the little fish as a food source, said Richard Thorne, a fisheries scientist and coauthor of the study. And Cordova fishermen, like Maxwell, made a living on herring. He fished in the summer and mended nets in the winter.

When the herring vanished in 1993, Maxwell lost the only life he knew how to live. His boat and equipment became worthless. His commercial fishing permit, valued at $300,000 before the spill, amounted to a scrap of paper. Maxwell went into debt and eventually filed for bankruptcy. He withdrew from friends and family. He sank into a deep depression. His life fell apart, and he -- like the herring -- has not recovered.

Except for a small circle of scientists and local taverns of forlorn seamen, few know the fate of the Prince William Sound herring and the fishermen whose story runs parallel. They were collateral damage, a faint ripple long after the fact.

"For the rest of the country, Exxon happened a long time ago," Maxwell says, a plaintive crack in his voice. "For me, for the people I grew up with, the oil is still spilling. We're still waiting for the end."

Cordova, population 2,300, is full of Maxwells -- people living in the long-running wake of a catastrophe. People waiting for resolution.

The legal saga, a bitter back-and-forth spanning 18 years, could finally end this year, as the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments today on whether Exxon -- now Exxon Mobil -- should pay $2.5 billion in punitive damages to 32,600 fishermen, cannery workers and Alaskan natives affected by the spill. A ruling is expected this summer.

The verdict is of monumental importance here. It will be history's judgment. And townspeople could use the money.

Cordova, the sound's biggest fishing village, has been called the prettiest dying town most Americans will never see. Glacier-carved peaks loom over what looks by comparison a toy-sized main street, and beyond, a harbor of crayon-colored boats. Only there aren't many boats left.

After the spill, the fishing fleet shrunk by half, three of the town's five canneries went bankrupt, countless fishermen and cannery workers left, a former mayor -- distraught over the town's bad fortune -- committed suicide, and lifers like Maxwell came to haunting the streets and docks like lost souls.

"That's my boat there," Maxwell says. He's leaning out the driver's window of his jalopy pickup. It is a frigid winter afternoon, overcast and darkening by the minute. Cordova gets as little as five hours of sunlight in the cold months.

Maxwell's words blow out in white gusts. Between odd jobs, he drives by his boat, a 28-foot bow picker, almost every day on his way to somewhere. It sits on blocks in a ragged lot next to an empty building. He paid almost $60,000 for it in 1989. Now he couldn't give it away.

The town is a graveyard of old boats, dry-docked in junkyards and backyards, as if the tide receded and never came back. Some sit by themselves, many are thrown together, listing every which way.

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