CORDOVA, ALASKA — IN almost 40 years of making a living from the sea, Robert Maxwell has survived stubborn storms, endured years when the salmon mysteriously did not appear, and braved the big 1964 earthquake, which played the land here like an accordion. But now he is struggling with something other than the capriciousness of nature: whether oil remaining on the cobbled coves of Prince William Sound will affect fishing in one of the world's most productive rookeries.
``We just have to wait and see if the fish come back,'' he says over a short stack of pancakes at the Sourdough Cafe here. ``We don't know whether to buy new nets, whether we are going to make any money - who knows?''
In the tiny fishing towns and native villages that hug Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska, a mood of uncertainty prevails as residents wait to see if salmon, herring, and crab will fill the holds of boats this summer as they did in the past.
Exxon and some other scientists see no reason that commercial fishing should not go off as usual or why native Alaskans, for the most part, should not gather food from the sea as they have for generations.
But others believe a few grounds may be closed again this season, and many fishermen themselves wonder whether the 10.8 million-gallon spill from the Exxon Valdez will affect how much they pull up in the future.
``You kind of allow for mother nature and her vagaries,'' says Robert (Bud) Banta, a longtime fisherman here, standing on a dock in jean shirt, rubber boots, and two-day growth of beard. ``But it makes you mad when it is a man-made disaster. It creates that much more anxiety.''
The spill has brought several shocks. First, was the oil itself, sullying a place many make their living: Last summer a large segment of commercial fishing in Prince William Sound was canceled or curtailed. Portions of Cook Inlet were also affected, as were Kodiak's waters.
Exxon has paid $180 million in claims to fishermen who were affected. Some $300 million more went to boat owners, most of them fishermen, who contracted their vessels out for use in the cleanup. This made many a tidy sum over the summer. A few became, in the local argot, ``spillionares.''
Yet others feel left out of Exxon's benevolence, and most fishermen, a proud lot, say they would rather catch salmon than fatten accounts with oil money.
A second disruption came from the cleanup itself, thousands of rubber-suited workers invaded small towns where many people have come in order to avoid life's hubbub. The influx, to be sure, filled local merchants' registers. But others yearn for a return to normalcy and sedateness, if rural Alaskan life can be called sedate.
Different towns are coping differently. In Valdez, the oil depot at the end of the 800-mile trans-Alaska pipeline, life is taking on a more normal routine, which at this time of year means one preoccupation: snow. More than 40 feet have fallen this winter, turning the town into a giant igloo.
As the hub of cleanup operations last summer, Valdez's population swelled from 3,500 to 11,000. Parks were turned into tent cities. All that is gone. Residents have gone back to leaving doors unlocked at night.
``None of us will be exactly the same,'' says John Devens, the mayor of Valdez when the accident occurred, who is now running for Congress. ``But I think the town has leveled out.''
One sign of healing: A recent play in town, ``Tanker on the Rocks.'' It featured a group of sailors who crash a tanker carrying crude fish, which wash up on shore and threaten a valuable resource, oil. Performances were well attended, suggesting Valdezans are regaining their humor.
In some other communities, emotions are more raw. Cordova, an Arcadian town where homes have metal roofs and the Moose Lodge sits on Main Street, harbors the largest fishing fleet in Prince William Sound. Like Valdez, Cordova was not hit by oil. Many of its fishermen, however, did not hoist nets last year. Nor were they admirers of Big Oil even before the spill.
``No one really knows what they are going to be doing as far as fishing, nor whether they will be able to work for Exxon on the cleanup this year,'' says Marilyn Leland, of the Cordova District Fishermen United.
Exxon sees no reason why nets cannot be cast.
``From what we see right now, we think the fishing season ought to be normal this year,'' says Otto Harrison, Exxon's top cleanup official in Alaska. State Department of Fish and Game officials say there may be ``spot'' closures where oil leaches off beaches.
Whether there will be long-term impact on fishing probably will not be known for some time. Exxon, again, says there should not be, noting that last year was Alaska's largest salmon take.
Others are less sanguine.
``There are going to be some long-term losses to the fishery,'' says Kenneth Parker, director of Fish and Game's commercial fisheries division.
Those who may have to work hardest to regain equilibrium are native Americans on the sound and the Gulf of Alaska. The spill not only disrupted the way many make a living but also curtailed rhythms of an ancient culture.
A special subsistence health task force has found no contamination of salmon and bottom fish like halibut and flounder. There has been no prohibition on eating duck, deer, or other game. But the group has advised natives to avoid shellfish in a few tidal areas.
Natives are dubious about this largely clean bill of health. They are also overcoming the intrusion of cleanup crews, thumping helicopters, and nosey news crews who came into abrupt contact with an isolated way of life.
``It has changed peoples' lifestyles, not just for a year, but for many years,'' says Gary Kompkoff, president of the village council of Tatitlek, a native community that is nearest to Bligh Reef, but whose shores were not hit by oil. ``There are some things you can't compensate for in life.''
In the end, the people of the sound, though angry, are resilient. Perhaps two T-shirts for sale at the District Fishermen United here sum up the twin emotions: One carries the label ``Tanker from Hell.'' The other, featuring a fisherman raising a clenched fist, says simply: ``We Will Prevail.'' Last of three articles. The others appeared March 23 and 26.