Tsunami debris watchers waiting
Written by Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer   
January 02, 2013 10:47 am

Officials in Washington are examining a second boat dock that washed up from the ocean Dec. 21 to see if it is from the March 11, 2011 tsunami that struck Japan, while others in Oregon and California are awaiting winter currents to bring them debris.

The U.S. Coast Guard spotted the dock on the rugged Olympic Peninsula – five miles from the nearest road.

“There were multiple inaccessible areas, and the dock seemed to find one,” said Curry County Emergency Services Coordinator Don Kendall said when he was notified of the dock’s appearance. “A lot of people are involved in that: the state, counties, park service, NOAA, the state fire marshall – everyone.

 

“They’ve got three goals: Trying to make sure where it is and who owns it, safety planning so no one gets messed up by going in there and access, whether to move it away or break it up.”

Although there is no identifying plaque on it, as there was on the dock that washed up on Agate Beach, about 7 miles north of Newport, this June, Japanese writing on it might provide clues as to its origins.

The dock is similar to the 166-ton concrete and steel dock that washed up in Oregon in June. Four invasive species – a starfish, seaweed, a mussel and a shore crab – were found among the 2 tons of material scraped from that railroad car-sized dock before it was torched and disassembled. It is unknown if any of those species are in Oregon waters.

A debris team also removed samples from the second dock.

In California, officials are trying to prioritize projects for funding with the state’s limited assets to address any material believed to wash up from the currents.

It is difficult to identify many items that wash ashore because, even if they are from Japan, they might not necessarily be related to the tsunami. Many items found could have been made in Japan and purchased here.

The tsunami was triggered by a 9.9 magnitude earthquake off the coast of Japan and resulted in the deaths of more than 18,000 people. It sucked an estimated 5 million tons of debris into the ocean. Most sank, leaving about 1.5 million tons floating on ocean waves or stuck in the Pacific Gyre, an enormous eddy of trash stuck in ocean currents in the center of the Northern Pacific Ocean.

Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest have already seen some debris, including the dock in Agate Beach, a motorcycle that washed up in a shipping container in Washington and a soccer ball near Portland.

In California, beachcombers will log fishing gear, water bottles, buoys and other items that might have originated in Japan and have been floating around for almost two years.

Scientists still believe most of the debris will wash up on beaches from northern California to Alaska. Nothing – yet – has reached California.

Paying for debri documentation and removal, however, could prove difficult. It cost $85,000 alone to remove the dock from Agate Beach – and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) only had $50,000 to chip in toward that project this summer.

However, the agency recently received a $5 million donation from Japan to clean up American shorelines.

Summertime efforts have been haphazard, officials said, as it is difficult to determine an item’s origin. Of more than 1,400 reported sightings of stuff on beaches or in the ocean, only 17 have been definitively linked to the tsunami.

“We want to get an idea of where to focus our efforts. We have limited resources,” said Eben Schwartz, marine debris program manager at the California Coastal Commission. “If we see the problem is hitting the north coast and not getting as far south as San Francisco, that tells us where to focus.”

Oregon has spent almost a quarter-million dollars to remove debris on beaches.

And various volunteer organizations have held tsunami cleanups – leading if not to more Japanese debris being found, a greater awareness of what might be to come.

“There’s a bit of tsunami debris fever,” said Charlie Plybon, manager of Oregon’s region of the Surfrider Foundation. “It’s like an Easter egg hunt. People used to walk past debris. Now they want to be engaged.”

Oregonians are about as ready as they can be.

“Oregon’s been geared up for over a year,” Kendall said of tsunami debris preparation. “We’re more quiet and active, rather than flapping our gums and not doing anything. But we haven’t heard or seen anything in the area. Coke cans and water bottles; the same stuff we get all the time.”