Vessel swept away in 2011 tsunami is found near Hawaii, returned to Japanese owner

By ROB SHIKINA | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser (TNS) | Published: November 24, 2014

Three years after Tomomune Matsunaga lost his home in the 2011 tsunami in Japan, he is looking forward to again riding his personal watercraft, which was found washed up on Johnston Atoll by a Hawaii volunteer.

Matsunaga, of Fukushima prefecture, was reunited with his Yamaha watercraft Nov. 10 — his birthday — when a student training vessel arrived in Japan with the cargo from Honolulu.

In a letter thanking those who helped return his vessel, Matsunaga said he holds memories of working on the craft in his garage, and his children playing on it.

"No doubt, in a few years time, I will be enjoying leisure in the small boat with my children … as we did in the happy days before March 10, 2011," he wrote.

On March 11, 2011, a magnitude-9.0 earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, killing 16,000 and sweeping about 5 million tons of debris into the sea.

Matsunaga said in an email that the craft's body was "full of scars" but that Yamaha was going to try to repair it. Shigeru Fujieda, a fisheries professor who helped return the craft, said by email that Yamaha is making the repairs at no cost for research purposes, which will take a while.

Danielle Lampe, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service volunteer who found the watercraft on the small atoll some 800 miles southwest of Hawaii, said she was relieved Matsunaga was reunited his property.

"It was great teamwork all around," she said. Lampe credited another volunteer, Chris Woolaway, with having the connections to find the owner and a ship that could take the vessel back to Japan.

"She seemed to know exactly what to do," she said of Woolaway, who is the Hawaii coordinator for International Coastal Cleanup.

Lampe was conducting a bird survey on the atoll when she came across the craft onshore in May. She and other crew members took the vessel back to Honolulu, hoping to use the registration number to locate the owner and confirm it was debris from the 2011 tsunami.

With the help of Woolaway and the nonprofit Japan Environmental Action Network, Matsunaga was located about five months later. Woolaway's colleague then contacted the captain of the Japanese training vessel Fukushima Maru, who agreed to pick up the vessel at no cost during a stopover in Honolulu before heading back to Japan.

Matsunaga's craft left Honolulu Harbor aboard the Fukushima Maru on Oct. 26.

"It took a lot of people working together and realizing that this is a really good thing to do for someone who lost so much," Lampe said. "It feels really good."

Megan Lamson, the marine debris project coordinator for the nonprofit Hawaii Wildlife Fund, met Matsunaga earlier this month while attending a symposium in Japan on tsunami marine debris.

"He was very humble," she said. "He was just a loving, genuine man."

Lamson, a presenter at the symposium, said the Japanese are embarrassed that their items are washing up in other countries and appreciate that some tsunami debris can be returned for sentimental reasons.

She said 53 items — out of thousands of potential items — have been confirmed to be debris from the 2011 tsunami. They were found in Alaska, on the West Coast and in Hawaii. Tracking the debris items helps with building drift models, she said.

She said about 40 percent, or 22 of those items, were found in Hawaii.

Lamson said marine debris — large and small — is a potentially massive global problem that can harm tourism in Hawaii, litter beaches, interrupt sea navigation, damage the ecosystem and poison the food chain.

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