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Floats, gunk and other tsunami debris hitting Gulf of Alaska beaches

  • Author: Doug O'Harra
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published May 8, 2012

Debris from the Japanese tsunami has begun to wash ashore along Alaska's outer beaches to a dramatic extent -- delivering floats, barrels, gunk plus one errant soccer ball recovered on Middleton Island, according to Facebook posts, news reports and eyewitness accounts from around the region.

The tragic flotsam from one of the worst disasters of the new century has been arriving months earlier than originally predicted by models based on the behavior of ocean currents — with the wind scooting the stuff thousands of miles across the surface of the sea at surprising speed.

"It's safe to say that tsunami debris is here," Marine Conservation Alliance director Merrick Burden told Kodiak fisheries journalist Laine Welch last week in an interview that appeared in her Fish Factor column.

"What we're finding are wind driven objects like buoys, Styrofoam, and large containers, some of which contain materials that are potentially toxic," Burden added. "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."

With gale warnings and eight-foot seas dominating Gulf weather, few new reports have come in since last week, Burden told Alaska Dispatch on Tuesday.

"The only thing is out of Cordova, where I'm told 'there are literally thousands of Styrofoam cylinders approximately the size of a 55-gallon barrel'" he said in an email message. "We can't verify whether it's tsunami debris or not, but it's certainly unusual."

People have been posting news and photos of possible tsunami debris at the SeaAlliance / Restoring our Shores Facebook page about marine debris sponsored by Juneau's Marine Conservation Alliance. Photos from Yakutat (and here) showed weird black gunk, a new large float on the shore and other disconcerting material.

And it keeps coming.

While impossible to immediately confirm a tsunami link, new trash of Japanese origins littered a beach east of Narrow Cape near the Kodiak Launch Complex on Tuesday afternoon. The items observed by Alaska Dispatch photographer Loren Holmes included empty bottles of Japanese-made Pocari Sweat energy drink and one 500-watt light bulb printed with Japanese characters.

When a magnitude 9.0 megathrust earthquake struck the ocean floor 45 miles east of the Tohoku region in northern Japan on March 11, 2011, a tsunami swept inland with 130-foot waves, leveling cities and towns, killing thousands of people. Every thing that might float away, the detritus of modern civilization, was flushed into the ocean as the waves receded.

As much as 2 million tons of debris was thought to remain afloat. While much of that stuff will eventually sink or get caught up in a trash gyre known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, hundreds of tons of material is on its way toward American and Canadian beaches.

As time passed, scientists and oceanographers have tried to get a fix on its location on its slow journey Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. The goal is to be prepared when it begins washing ashore or endangering sea life, adding to a worldwide epidemic of human refuse and floatable trash spreading across the world's seas. The items range from mile-long ghost nets that strangle marine life to tiny particles that appear almost indistinguishable from plankton, the foundation of the marine food web.

At least 267 species across the world regularly suffer injury from getting snared or eating debris -- including most sea turtle species, almost half of all seabirds and 43 percent of marine mammals, according to a United Nations report.

In Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, the arrival began last fall and has continued to grow ever since. Through February, at least 350 buoys of three different styles now in use by the Japanese oyster fishery -- and photographed amid tsunami debris shortly after the disaster -- had been reported by 45 different beachcombers in the three Pacific Coast states, British Columbia and Alaska.

"The arrival of these buoys is unprecedented," oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, a pioneer in the science of tracking flotsam across the world's oceans, told Alaska Dispatch. "Yes, they've washed up over the years here and there, but never in these numbers. The arrival rate is 167 times the historical arrival rate."

Perhaps most dramatic of all, scouts for a beach cleanup team discovered a disturbing flotilla of trash along Montague Island in the past few weeks. Although Montague typically snatches its share of nets, ropes, floats and plastic each winter, this season's tide-stranded trash appears to be much worse than usual.

"For 50 miles or more, massive amounts of debris litter the beaches -- black snarls of fishing nets and canisters that may still contain oil, fuel and kerosene," reported Naomi Klouda in a story posted last week by the Homer Tribune that triggered wide coverage across the web. "Carcasses of urethane foam torn out of buildings in the Japanese Earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck last spring also washed ashore."

Among the observers was Chris Pallister, president of Gulf of Alaska Keeper, a group that monitors 17 cleanup sites and 122 miles of beaches. Members retrieve tons of garbage off remote Alaskan shorelines each year.

"What we are seeing is magnitudes more. In my opinion, this is the single greatest environmental pollution event that has ever hit the west coast of North America," Pallister told Klouda in the story. "The slow-motion aspects of it have fooled an unwitting public. It far exceeds the Santa Barbara or Exxon Valdez oil spills in gross tonnage and also geographic scope."

Some of the finds have been bizarre -- including the Middleton Island soccer ball that will be reunited with the Japanese boy who lost it and the almost unbelievable "discovery of a Harley-Davidson" recovered in British Columbia and reported in a story posted by the London Daily Mail. "And more could be coming thick and fast in the coming months as scientists are now saying the wreckage washed into the sea from the Japanese tsunami will reach North American shores far sooner than previously thought."

Contact Doug O'Harra at doug(at)alaskadispatch.com

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