Tsunami Debris: Bigger Threat Than Expected

May 18, 2012 Updated: October 1, 2015
A Japanese fishing vessel Ryou-Un Maru smoulders
A Japanese fishing vessel Ryou-Un Maru smoulders after a gunnery exercise 180 miles west of the Southeast Alaskan coast April 5, 2012. The Coast Guard crew sank the vessel, in 6,000 feet of water, by using explosive ammunition and filling it with water. (AFP/Getty Images)

When the derelict Japanese ghost boat appeared on the U.S. West Coast earlier this year, it was a touching reminder of the tragic loss Japan had endured from the devastating earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. Now, however, the U.S. coastlines face a grim reality of their own—marine debris from the Japanese tsunami is posing a bigger threat than experts first thought.

“It’s a very large environmental tragedy which is just beginning,” said Merrick Burden of the Juneau-based Marine Conservation Alliance foundation. The problem is large, both in physical area and in its impact on the environment.

The Japanese government estimated that about 5 million tons of debris was washed into the sea following the tsunami. Much of the material sank, but around 1.5 million tons was expected to be buoyant—a great deal of which would end up on U.S. shores, with the help of prevailing winds.

“That’s not surprising when you consider that entire cities with their gas stations, garages, warehouses, stores, and industrial plants all washed into the sea,” said Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Thursday at a congressional hearing on the threat to the U.S. coastline posed by the debris.

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates the bulk of the debris will peak around Spring 2013 and continue to wash up throughout the rest of the year. However, wind-driven material has already started to build up in parts of the northwest American coast.

While Canada found a Harley Davidson floating off its shores, the Alaskan coastline is receiving the brunt of the debris, according to Merrick Burden.

To document the debris, the Marine Conservation Alliance has mobilized groups of environmentalists up and down the Alaskan coast. Among the masses of material, they are finding thousands of Styrofoam boxes the size of 55 gallon drums and piles of Styrofoam broken up into tiny pieces. They are a real threat to fish, Burden said.

There are also mounds of plastic, Japanese fishing buoys, kerosene flagons, bottles of rat poison, and drums of kerosene products.

The beaches, previous tourist destinations for their pristine beauty, are now “littered with rubble,” Burden said, “Styrofoam everywhere, leaked stuff hardening on the shore.”

The NOAA is alert to the problem and is working with other U.S. coastal regions to the south of Alaska, including Washington state, California, Oregon, and Hawaii.

This combination shows a rescue worker walking through rubble in the tsunami hit area
This combination shows a rescue worker walking through rubble in the tsunami hit area of Minamisanriku, Miyagi prefecture on March 18, 2011 (top) and the same area on Jan. 14, 2012 (bottom). (Mike Clarke/Toru Yamanaka/AFP/Getty Images)

Through its 13-man Marine Debris Program, the NOAA is working to understand the scope of the threat and is collecting data on debris quantity, type, movement, and impact, David Kennedy, assistant administrator for the NOAA’s Ocean Services and Coastal Resource Management, told the Senate hearing.

The debris is now in an area three times the size of the contiguous United States, Kennedy said, and varies from buoyant wind-driven debris, to partially submerged or just-below-the-surface debris that is carried by sea currents.

Mindful that large pieces of debris could block shipping lanes, Kennedy said that NOAA has mobilized an array of strategies in an endeavor to pinpoint those pieces and predict where they might come ashore.

“NOAA has coordinated with groups who regularly have ‘eyes on the water’ to report back debris sightings, including shipping fleets, commercial fishing vessels, and scientific fleets such as University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System vessels,” he told the hearing.

National airlines, satellites, and at-sea technologies have also been recruited, Kennedy said, and discussions were planned with communities in California, Oregon, and Hawaii to monitor the coast.

Meetings have already been held in Washington state and Alaska, he said.

Also aware that the ghost ship had drifted right into U.S. territory without being picked up by U.S. surveillance—it was reported to the U.S. by Canadian authorities—Kennedy said they were now working with high-level U.S. security surveillance to better detect larger debris on its way to the U.S. coast.

West Coast communities, however, want to know more. In a prepared statement, Robert Andrew, mayor of Long Beach, Wash., wanted to know what the plans were if hazardous material turned up: who would be responsible, what the lines of communication were, and “the $64,000 question”—who would organize and pay for the cleanup.

The city is reliant on a long-established fishing industry and tourism for its economy, he said.

“If the debris is heavy or dangerous, it could keep the visitors and summer residents we are so dependent on away, and that would be disastrous for our economy and for the 230 small businesses located in Long Beach,” he said.

Andrew noted stories in the Alaskan press showing banners reading: “Shame on us for not being prepared.”

“We have had a year to get prepared and Washington, too, will have few excuses when the day comes,” he stated.

His concerns were passed on to the hearing by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) who, along with Sen. Begich and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), grilled Kennedy for answers.

What is the national plan and who is going to pay for it, Sen. Begich asked.

Kennedy responded. “We don’t have the funds to mount a cleanup, especially in areas remote like Alaska and Hawaii.” Nor did Kennedy volunteer a plan.

He did note that the event was a new one for the NOAA, that his team was small, and that funding had been cut back in the last budget. He said he would get back to the committee with information, as it surfaced.

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