Sea-monster of tsunami debris starts to foul Alaska coast

Fisheries
By LAINE WELCH
May 5, 2012 

Soccer balls, motorcycles and a million other reminders of the massive tsunami in Japan a year ago are appearing along Alaska's coastlines.

"It's safe to say that tsunami debris is here," said Merrick Burden, director of the Juneau-based Marine Conservation Alliance Foundation.

Since January, the MCA has been tracking where and what kinds of debris is coming ashore, and whether it is radioactive (none so far) at Kodiak, Yakutat, Sitka and Craig, where wreckage was expected to hit first.

"What we're finding are wind- driven objects like buoys, Styrofoam and large containers, some of which contain materials that are potentially toxic," Burden said. "We're finding drums full of things that we don't know what they are yet. So we're looking at a potential large-scale environmental problem, and what we're dealing with now is just the start of it."

Debris has been found in every area checked, Burden said, and mysterious sludge is washing up on some beaches, apparently from opened containers. Just days ago, an enormous amount of floating debris was spotted off the southern reaches of Prince William Sound, making national headlines. But the worst is yet to come.

"Next year is when we expect the larger debris that is driven by currents rather than wind," he cautioned. "That should be composed of entirely different types of materials, and it might even follow a different trajectory through the water and end up in different locations."

"It's obviously tragic, and it looks like it's a pretty major environmental hazard as well," Burden said.

"We are dealing with something that will be scattered across the majority of the Alaska coastline as it sweeps across Southeast, through the Gulf, out to the Aleutians and spits up into the Bering Sea."

Alaska mariners, fishermen, pilots and beachcombers can play an important role in tracking the oncoming tsunami debris.

"Let us know about the debris you're finding -- where it is, what it is composed of, take a photo, and send to us," Burden urged. "We are also sharing the information with NOAA."

Get more information at MCAFoundation.org. Tsunami debris sightings can be reported via Facebook at SeaAlliance/Restoring our Shores. Get a free laminated tracking program flyer at adminmca@ak.net.

Marine trades move Alaska

Businesses that serve Alaska's marine industry, including ports and harbors, are a lifeline for coastal communities. State economic specialists want to highlight the importance of the marine trade sector, and the jobs it provides, which are often overlooked.

"Research shows that about 80 percent of new jobs are created by existing businesses in a community, rather than businesses attracted to a community. Our goal is to try and retain and expand existing businesses, and doing so is a surer economic development bet than recruiting new ones from other places," said specialist Kevin O'Sullivan at the Division of Economic Development.

To identify the challenges facing businesses, as well as future opportunities, the division is asking Alaskans to complete an online Business Retention and Expansion questionnaire on local marine businesses.

"Ship building and repair businesses, seafood processors, all modes of transportation, marine vendors, such as welders or automotive folks, marine construction, anyone dealing with logistics or fuel, ports and harbors and the infrastructure associated with that, and the marine professional services we forget about -- engineers, banks, insurance companies, accountants," O'Sullivan said.

A survey targeting fishermen will follow in the fall, he added. There will be follow-ups in future years to identify trends.


Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Her Fish Radio programs can be heard on stations around the state. This material is protected by copyright. For information on reprinting, contact msfish@alaska.com.

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