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Tsunami debris cleanup on Alaska beaches hamstrung by funding shortfalls

A Juneau-based marine conservation foundation, bracing for millions of tons of Japanese tsunami debris coming ashore in Alaska, has a plan outlining how to ramp up cleanup efforts to address the problem. The missing component, says the Juneau-based Marine Conservation Alliance Foundation, is money.

To date Congress has approved $250,000 for cleanup operations to combat debris from the devastating Japanese tsunami, of which $50,000 has been allocated to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. The agency has solicited requests for proposals for marine debris cleanup in Prince William Sound.

Dave Gaudet, marine debris program coordinator for the foundation, noted that the government of Japan has also offered up to $6 million for use in debris cleanup, subject to approval by the National Diet of Japan, the nation's bicameral legislature.

The foundation cites a new report from the Washington Sea Grant Program that concludes that at least 50 percent of the tsunami debris that comes ashore -- 30 to 375 million pounds -- will land in Alaska, with the heaviest concentrations of debris expected to be from Yakutat to Gore Point, in the Gulf of Alaska.

The majority of the debris is expected to land within four years of the March 2011 tsunami, but Alaska may receive additional debris as it is released from ocean gyres, oceanographic studies and models indicate.

With these preliminary estimates identified, the next challenge, says MCAF, is removing the debris.

To that end, the foundation, a non-profit that has sponsored 83 cleanup projects in Alaska since 2003, has designed a plan outlining how to ramp up cleanup efforts effectively to address the inundation of debris, including cleanups, surveys, and ghost ships.

"The projected distribution of the debris is consistent with preliminary findings of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation's aerial survey and a cleanup conducted by Gulf of Alaska Keeper sponsored by MCAF, Gaudet said. "The area is rich in wildlife resources, remote and very difficult to work in.

"Based on our experience conducting cleanups around the state, it will take a lot of people, equipment and money to remove the tsunami debris."

One of the big concerns is the vast amount of Styrofoam coming ashore and breaking up there. MCAF is looking into use of Styrofoam compactors once the Styrofoam is collected, and moving it to large commercial landfills in other states.

While other coastal cleanup programs have often engaged volunteers, use of volunteers is not feasible in this situation, Gaudet said. Just transporting the volunteers out and back to these areas and providing some sort of living accommodations to them at the debris sites would be too expensive, he said.

The cleanup plan prepared by MCAF notes that the 2011 earthquake, which occurred 81 miles off the coast of Japan, and the resulting tsunami, with wave heights up to 33 feet, created more than 20 million tons of debris, of which five million tons were estimated to have been washed into the ocean.

The Japanese Ministry of the Environment has estimated that 70 percent of this debris sank, leaving 1.5 million tons- over three billion pounds – adrift in the ocean. These debris fields were so dense that they could be tracked by satellite photos until April 14, 2011, when agencies turned to modeling exercises to estimate when and where the debris might go.

General patterns of the North Pacific currents are well known. The debris entered into an eastward-moving current where the north-and-south-moving currents of the North Equatorial and Subarctic gyres meet off the coast of Japan.

The current travels across the Pacific to North America, then splits north and south. The current is estimated to move at approximately six miles a day. Modeling exercises based on these current speeds projects that debris would begin reaching the shores of the west coast of North America in the spring of 2013, but tsunami debris began making landfall in December 2011, just eight months after the tsunami.

This story first appeared in The Cordova Times. You can reach Margaret Bauman with comments and suggestions at

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