Ship Tracking Tsunami Debris, Ocean Trash Makes Stop in BC

By Joan Delaney, Epoch Times
August 7, 2012 10:17 pm Last Updated: September 29, 2015 5:12 pm
The tall ship Kaisei, seen here docked in Richmond after several weeks of tracking debris and gathering research on the Great Pacific Patch and the Japanese tsunami. The findings will be presented at the Richmond Maritime Festival Aug. 10-12. (Courtesy of City of Richmond)

After several weeks of tracking floating debris from last year’s Japanese tsunami as well as debris from the North Pacific Gyre, the tall ship Kaisei has arrived in Richmond, B.C.

The Kaisei is the primary research vessel for San Francisco-based Project Kaisei, an international program dedicated to raising awareness and implementing solutions to the growing problem of marine debris.

The research gleaned during the Kaisei’s latest voyage will be presented at the Richmond Maritime Festival from August 10 to 12, where the public will be able to board the 46-metre brigantine and learn firsthand about her environmental mission.

There will also be a series of question-and-answer talks led by Project Kaisei staff and scientists, including co-founder Mary Crowley, as well as video screenings highlighting the project’s latest research.

Crowley, executive director of the Ocean Voyages Institute, the non-profit that operates the Kaisei, says the problem of marine debris is worrisome, given its detrimental effect on marine life and the overall health of the world’s oceans.

“I personally, and our organization, have been extremely concerned with the global issue of ocean trash, because in all of the world’s oceans we are getting more and more proliferation of mainly plastic—just all this plastic that never goes away and is really bad for sea life,” Crowley told The Epoch Times.

“I mean, there’s 330,000—at least—marine mammals being killed every year by either ingesting plastics or getting entangled in them. So whales and dolphins and seals and all sorts of things are getting killed.”

According to UN estimates, at least 80 percent of litter in the sea comes from land-based sources.

Much of this waste ends up in the North Pacific Gyre, more infamously known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a large expanse of remote open ocean where four currents converge, acting as a catalyst in collecting floating materials.

The gyre has become home to huge fields of plastic and other debris from both North America and Asia, and represents one of the world’s great environmental challenges in terms of the scope and scale of the debris.

“We see [marine debris] as a major global epidemic that is affecting the health of the ocean,” says Crowley.

Tsunami Debris

The hundreds of tons of debris swept into the sea by the Japanese tsunami, which is currently floating across the Pacific and beginning to wash up on shores along the west coast of North America, “just adds another layer of bad things happening for the ocean,” Crowley notes.

“I think the issue of the tsunami debris is a very serious one for the ocean and a very serious one for shipping. And in our studying of it, we would like to be proponents of going out there and doing clean-up—getting as much of it out of the ocean as possible.”

Kaisei crew members cut through ocean debris before hauling it aboard. (Ocean Voyages Institute/Project Kaisei)

As well as tracking the debris, the Kaisei is taking large water samples that will be tested at the University of Hawaii to discover the degree of radioactivity being spread throughout the Pacific.

While the tsunami debris itself hasn’t been shown to have significant levels of radiation, Crowley says radioactivity continues to be dumped into the ocean from the Fukishima nuclear plant.

“After the tsunami a great deal of radioactivity was dumped into the ocean, but the fact is it’s continued to be dumped into the ocean—it’s being dumped into the ocean today,” she says.

“It’s a general belief that the ocean is so large that the radioactivity spreads out and becomes insignificant, but I think there’s a limit.”

On its return trip to San Francisco, the Kaisei will conduct further research on large fields of tsunami debris it encountered off the west coast of the U.S. on its voyage north to Richmond.

“When we do our return voyage, we’ve allowed quite a lot of time to survey off the coast of Washington and Oregon to follow up on some of the sightings we took coming north, and spending more time doing a pattern through the area recording the debris and picking up debris as is appropriate, etc.,” Crowley says.

The Kaisei team is also studying the effects of Persistent Organic Pollutants, or POPs, from collected samples. Land activities and leachates from marine debris are sources of pollutants that can negatively affect marine life and human health.

Cleaning Up

This was Kaisei’s third voyage to the garbage patch, and on each trip the crew salvaged a good deal of ocean trash, but much more needs to be done, says Crowley.

To that end, Project Kaisei has partnered with Covanta Energy, an international waste-to-energy company that can convert ocean waste into fuel or energy.

A plastic container and other ocean garbage picked up by the Kaisei. (Ocean Voyages Institute/Project Kaisei)

“I think from the point of view of being responsible and caring about the health of the ocean and the health of the planet that clean-up is imperative, and it also is necessary to be sure that everything that’s cleaned up is being recycled and repurposed. And we definitely are able to accomplish that,” Crowley says.

Project Kaisei is also working with researchers from the University of Hawaii—experts in ocean current patterns who can direct the ship to areas containing debris.

In addition, Crowley has assembled a think-tank consisting of naval architects, marine engineers, fishermen, sailors, and ocean industry representatives to help come up with a plan for the most effective ways to do a major clean-up.

“We’ve actually come a long way in a couple of years, putting all the pieces in place,” she says, adding that the project is currently looking for funding to do a series of clean-up expeditions.

“We have people from Europe, people from India, people from South America all coming to us and asking for the most effective ways to do clean-up,” she says.

“My think-tank really feels that we have to do a couple of big expeditions and then we will happily release all the information and consult with and help people around the world, because that’s what we want to do is inspire people in all different parts of the world to do clean-up.”

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