HOMER -- Facing the Gulf of Alaska like a giant lacrosse basket, the .4-mile-long Gore Point east beach catches much of the Pacific Ocean's marine debris. The southeasternmost point of the Kenai Peninsula, seasoned beachcombers know Gore Point as one of the best beaches to find treasures like sports-logoed fly swatters lost overboard from a cargo ship and so popular they have a Facebook page.
Last winter, Gore Point caught more than container spills. Just as oceanographic models predicted, a small part of tons of tsunami debris from the March 2011 disaster in Japan washed up at Gore Point, Alaska.
I spent several days at Gore Point earlier in August as part of the first Alaska marine debris cleanup targeting tsunami debris. Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies special projects coordinator Patrick Chandler, Ryan Ridge, Bill Palmer and I flew out to Gore Point with Jose De Creeft of Northwind Aviation. At Port Dick we met eight volunteers with Gulf of Alaska Keeper, sailing from Seward in the C-KEPR, a 60-foot Chris Craft cabin cruiser once owned by Ed McMahon, and the CEKR, a 30-foot landing craft.
What we found on the east beach stunned us. Dozens of big white plastic foam buoys the size of 30-gallon trash cans poked through driftwood. Orange and black buoys, 4 feet long by 2 feet across, dotted the beach like giant horse pills. Red fuel cans with Japanese writing, some still with kerosene, also were found.
And everywhere, blue, beige and white plastic foam insulation -- possibly from Japanese buildings -- covered the beach. Caught between logs, mingled with seaweed on the tide and washed onto black sand, millions of pieces of plastic foam fouled the beach. Some chunks were 2 feet wide, others no bigger than an eraser head, and almost all the pieces had been nibbled at and bitten by sea and land animals.
The Tohuku earthquake and tsunami killed 16,000 people, destroyed countless buildings and swept an estimated 5 million tons of marine debris into the ocean. Much of that sank, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration thinks 1.5 million tons remain floating, with an unknown amount likely to hit North Pacific Ocean shores from the northern California coast to Alaska.
Cleaning up tsunami debris a challenge on Alaska coastline
Gulf of Alaska Keeper, or GoAK, has done marine debris cleanups at Gore Point every summer since 2007, and had planned a cleanup before the tsunami debris began arriving. As the immensity of the tsunami debris problem in Alaska became apparent, the Ocean Conservancy, an international marine conservation group that sponsors annual cleanups, approached Chandler. If it gave CACS a $10,000 grant, could something be done to clean up tsunami debris?
Sure, Chandler said. GoAK already had baseline data at Gore Point, and a 2012 cleanup would provide some good information on the scope of probable tsunami debris. CACS would team up with GoAK and pay expenses like fuel and food.
"It provided a great opportunity and could be done," Chandler said of Gore Point. "It's also relatively close and accessible in comparison to other beaches that could be cleaned up."
"Relatively close" in Alaska, though, doesn't mean the same thing as an Oregon coast beach near a highway. Gore Point is a 75-mile boat trip from Homer through some treacherous ocean at the southern end of the Kenai Peninsula.
The beaches that catch debris on the outside coast of Gore Point also present challenges getting bagged debris off the beach to a boat. Debris either has to be carried over the isthmus or hauled out to a landing craft through often heavy surf. On one try, volunteers flipped a Zodiac skiff, fortunately with no injuries.
Because of its remoteness, the Port Dick and Gore Point area -- part of Kachemak Bay Wilderness State Park -- isn't as popular as park land further north. It's a short 25-minute floatplane trip over Sadie Cove, though. Goat hunters work the mountains in the fall. Fishermen longlining for halibut anchor in Port Dick while letting their gear soak. The west beach and the walk to the east beach make a good day trip for mariners needing to stretch their sea legs and do some beachcombing.
Floatplane pilots like to land on Gore Point Lake to beachcomb or fish along the north beach, a 4-mile-long catcher beach. Surfers from Kodiak and Homer seek out the north beach's breaks.
Seasoned cleaning crew
With 11 seasons of marine debris projects, GoAK workers have perfected beach cleanup to an art. On the east isthmus beach, cleanup sometimes means mining the thick driftwood jumbles for trash stuck between logs. Palmer, Ridge, Chandler and I sometimes found ourselves on hands and knees crawling through the logs to pull out a tattered plastic bottle. We also found odd objects from probable container spills, like the sports logo fly swatters, orange Nerf balls, red hummingbird feeders, wooden birdhouses and even a few intact walkers.
Chris Pallister, GoAK president, developed a system to count, weigh and catalog debris into about 140 categories. Working with partner Mika Zwollo, a biology professor at the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Va., Pallister divided the east beach into 100-foot sectors, cataloging by sector.
To make counting easier, we bagged all the foam in separate bags. Plastic foam presented the biggest challenge along parts of the beach, so first we picked up all the big debris and then went back and picked at foam.
The foam was caught in log jams and in smaller wood debris. Collecting it meant sitting down and working the beach -- a relief from the constant bending over to pick up bigger debris.
Zwollo noted one sad find in cataloging debris.
"A lot of shoes," she said. "As Chris said, they were worn."
There have been a few rare findings on other beaches of Japanese cultural objects, such as soccer balls with personal writing, ultimately traced to tsunami survivors. At Gore Point we found things like the red kerosene cans with Japanese printing, but nothing personal. Shoes often get found on beaches, so whether they came from a tsunami victim or a fisherman is hard to tell.
Race to recover foam before pulverizing winter storms
The focus of the Gore Point cleanup was to get the plastic foam off the beach before winter storms break up the big pieces into smaller chunks. Already, small plastic foam has washed up on Kachemak Bay beaches. That's the big threat of tsunami debris, Chandler said.
"If it was big plastic buoys, it's not such a big deal," he said, referring to hard plastic buoys that don't shatter in the surf.
The white plastic foam buoys are another matter. Winter storms likely will shred them.
"Even one of them could turn a wrack line white down a beach," Chandler said.
Pallister's preliminary figures show a dramatic increase in debris by weight and kind from previous cleanups at Gore Point -- evidence that it's from Japan, according to NOAA.
"Significant changes in type and amount on a shoreline are an indicator that debris is from the tsunami," NOAA says on its Japan Tsunami Marine Debris website.
On the Gore Point east beach, for example, the total weight of debris almost doubled averages from 2008-2011. For plastic foam, there was a sevenfold increase, and the percentage went up from 7.6 percent of all debris, on average, to 28.6 percent for 2012 (see box below).
"That's a huge increase," Pallister said.
Washed Ashore: Alaska art from Japan tsunami debris
All that plastic foam and other marine debris has been removed by volunteers from the Gore Point beaches as well as pocket beaches in Port Dick and on Elizabeth Island. One load on the 32-foot CEKR went to Homer, the other to Seward.
Chandler said CACS intends to use every bit of marine debris in its Washed Ashore art project.
"There's so much Styrofoam I don't know what to do with it," he said.
Chandler said he estimated it would have cost $2,000 to pay a commercial garbage hauling service for two Dumpster loads of debris disposal at the Homer landfill. Instead, CACS will use the money to pay artist and Washed Ashore coordinator Angela Haseltine-Pozzi to visit Homer in September. Funds also will go toward rental space at an East End Road and Kachemak Drive garage for the art project.
The Washed Ashore project will bring home the tsunami's impact on Southcentral Alaska beaches, Chandler said. The Ocean Conservancy also will fund part of that project.
Not everyone can get out to remote beaches to clean up debris, Chandler noted, but Washed Ashore gives them an understanding of the issue.
"It will get hundreds of more people hands-on with debris and tsunami debris," he said.
Getting invited to Gore Point was an experience I'm lucky to have had. In 2007 I also worked on the first Gore Point cleanup after decades of marine debris had fouled the beach and even inland forest. We hauled away 40,000 pounds that year. Thanks to periodic clean ups, the forest remains clean.
I left Gore Point with an appreciation that a small group of volunteers can keep a remote and wild Alaska beach clean. As I walked through the forest from the east beach to wait for the float plane on the west beach, I saw a small white foam buoy and a plastic bucket.
I couldn't let that stay in the forest we had worked so hard to clean. I said my farewell to Gore Point the best way I could, by picking up one last piece of marine debris.