Half of tsunami debris likely will wind up trashing Alaska's shoreline

Laine Welch

At least 1.5 million tons of debris from Japan's 2011 tsunami are still afloat, and at least half of that is expected to hit Alaska's coastline. The region from Yakutat to Gore Point off the Kenai Peninsula will likely see the heaviest debris piles, but Southeast Alaska and other areas will see junk as well.

The estimates come from a fascinating new report by Washington Sea Grant. The report, by Ian Miller and Jim Brennan, says most of the debris should land within four years of the 2011 tsunami, with Alaska receiving more in later years as it is released from ocean gyres.

Most of the debris that has landed so far has been lighter items driven by the wind, such as buoys and astonishing amounts of Styrofoam. Trackers find that plastic particularly troublesome, said Dave Gaudet, marine debris program coordinator for the Juneau-based Marine Conservation Alliance Foundation.

"We don't have any definitive data on what Styrofoam does to the wildlife and the environment. We do know that it breaks up and animals ingest it and it gets into the ecosystem. So we need to be vigilant for that," he said.

The alliance has spearheaded marine debris cleanup in remote Alaska for years. Shortly after the tsunami occurred in March 2011 it began tracking where and what types of debris are coming ashore at monitoring stations at Kodiak, Yakutat, Sitka and Craig. Arriving soon will be heavier, current-driven debris riding beneath the ocean surface.

The foundation has compiled an extensive debris cleanup plan for Alaska, and is awaiting the results of a state-backed aerial survey this summer to help prioritize actions.

"We are in the process of trying to identify the kinds of debris and if it is close to breeding areas for birds or mammals, or other ecologically important areas. Things like that will factor into what areas are going to be cleaned," Gaudet said.

Or more accurately -- if they get cleaned.

"The biggest thing we are missing is funding. Nothing has been dedicated to the tsunami beyond the $50,000 that came from NOAA, which is being used to clean up parts of Prince William Sound this year. But for the future, no money is identified," he said.

Japan has donated $6 million to the U.S. government to help with cleanup. Gaudet said he's hopeful the Washington Sea Grant study will make the case for Alaska to get a good portion of those funds.


Getting a fishery certified as "sustainable" has become a cost of doing business in today's seafood world. Without that stamp of approval, major buyers in the U.S. and Europe simply won't buy your fish. Alaska salmon, pollock and halibut have long merited eco-labels. Pacific cod was the latest Alaska fish to gain an eco-label in 2010 from the Marine Stewardship Council -- but it is in danger of being yanked due to a need for more information.

"We are having a really difficult time getting good, accurate information on the amount of lost gear, particularly pot gear that is out there," said Jim Browning, director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation in Anchorage. The foundation is managing the council's cod certification process.

Alaska's cod fishery certification includes all gear types -- trawl, longline and pots. Obtaining and retaining the council label hinged on meeting 29 conditions, Browning said, and all have been met except for the lost gear estimates.

"The assessment team is interested in that because they are worried about ghost fishing," he explained.

The biggest data gap comes from the pot cod fleet. It has been easier to get information to and from other gears because they have centralized groups and fishing members. But the pot boats stand pretty much on their own.

Information about lost gear will not become public, Browning said; the group uses only locations to look for aggregations of gear in particular areas.

Cod boats are out on the grounds now, and the foundation is hoping fishing organizations or fleet managers will encourage skippers to collect data on lost and retrieved pot gear. If that remaining bit of information is not in hand by May, it could derail the green label for Alaska cod.


Shrimp, canned tuna and salmon remained America's favorite seafoods last year. Alaska pollock ranked No. 4, bumping farmed tilapia to the fifth spot. Another farmed whitefish from Asia, Pangasius, was sixth most popular. Catfish, crabs, cod and clams round out the Top 10.

Those seafoods make up more than 90 percent of the fish eaten in the U.S., according to the National Fisheries Institute, which compiles the list. The only two fish that saw increased consumption were Alaska pollock and Pangasius, likely reflecting continued belt tightening by consumers and lower U.S. catfish production.

Overall, Americans ate slightly less seafood last year at 15 pounds a person, down from 15.8 pounds in 2010.

Where in the world do they eat the most seafood? The Maldives Islands in the Indian Ocean, where each person eats 314 pounds a year.

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.