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Japanese tsunami debris: It’s not the problem California feared

By PAUL ROGERS | San Jose Mercury News | Published: March 16, 2016

SAN JOSE, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — When a massive earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan in 2011, sending homes, cars and millions of tons of debris into the Pacific Ocean, fears rose that vast amounts of wreckage — some of it toxic — might wash up on California beaches, foul harbors and even sink U.S. ships.

Government agencies sprang into action. And more than 16,000 volunteers scoured all 15 California coastal counties.

But when the fifth anniversary of the disaster passed Friday, only three pieces of confirmed tsunami debris had been found on California beaches.

“I expected much more,” said Eben Schwartz, marine debris program manager for the California Coastal Commission. “I thought we’d see a lot of boats washing up, like Oregon and Washington have. I was concerned that large amounts of Styrofoam would hit our coast, like they have in Alaska. But we’ve been fairly untouched.”

What happened?

Experts say much of the flotsam eventually sank to the bottom of the ocean as it traveled the 5,100 miles from Japan to California. And a lot of the floating junk — from plastic lawn chairs to computer parts — probably ended up in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an infamous area between Hawaii and California where billions of pieces of trash have converged for decades.

Some bigger items, such as fishing boats, did end up on West Coast beaches. But because of ocean current patterns, most of it landed on shoreline north of California.

“Tsunami debris on the coastline will become less and less visible. We are well past the peak,” said Nikolai Maximenko, a scientist at the University of Hawaii who built computer models of its possible paths. “But the debris in the ocean will remain for a long time. Sailors will still see it for years to come.”

Through this week, federal officials have counted 1,598 items recovered in California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, British Columbia and Hawaii that could have come from the March 11, 2011, tsunami. They range from pieces of lumber to plastic bottles, fishing gear and other trash with Japanese writing.

But because much of the garbage could have been tossed off boats before the tsunami, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration requires serial numbers or other identification so officials can confirm with Japanese consulate officials that the objects definitely came from the disaster. Using that standard, 30 objects were confirmed in Hawaii, 13 in Washington, 6 in Alaska, 6 in Oregon, 4 in British Columbia and 3 in California.

Here are California’s confirmed items:

  • A barnacle-encrusted fishing boat that hit the beach in 2013 south of Crescent City, near the Oregon border. Through hand-painted characters on its side, the boat was traced to Takata High School in Rikuzentakata, a Japanese town devastated by the tsunami. It was returned and now sits in a museum in Japan.
  • A 22-foot fiberglass boat found at Dry Lagoon in Humboldt County in 2014. It has been displayed at the Humboldt County Fair.
  • A green plastic shipping container that washed ashore at Mussel Rock Park Beach, north of Pacifica, last July. Writing on its side linked it with the Tohoku area, which suffered massive damage in the tsunami.

Some of the items that reached the West Coast drew worldwide attention.

Two large wooden and concrete docks came ashore in Oregon and Washington in 2012. A soccer ball found on a remote Alaskan island was traced back to a Japanese schoolboy and returned. He had lost everything else in the tsunami.

A Harley-Davidson motorcycle in a shipping container washed up in British Columbia. After its Japanese owner donated it, the motorcycle now sits in the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee.

There were no known chemical spills on the West Coast from the debris. And no boats sank from hitting any tsunami wreckage, although sailors in the 2013 Transpac Yacht Race between Los Angeles and Honolulu reported running into an unusual number of floating wooden objects, Maximenko said.

The disaster has helped raise awareness about the growing problem of trash in the ocean, said Jared Blumenfeld, regional administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in San Francisco.

“The good news is that the West Coast didn’t see the volumes of waste that we had anticipated,” he said. “The bad news is that there is a huge increase in the amount of plastic pollution going into the ocean. After climate change, plastic pollution is one of the main threats facing the world’s oceans. I was at Stinson Beach last weekend, and I couldn’t believe the quantity of small pieces of plastic I saw.”

A study last year by scientists at the University of Georgia, the University of California, Santa Barbara and other research centers estimated that 8 million tons of plastic goes into the world’s oceans every year. That’s more than the 5 million tons of debris that the Japanese Ministry of the Environment estimated ended up in the Pacific after the magnitude-9.0 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, which killed 15,833 people, destroyed 129,000 buildings and triggered a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Scientists say the floating debris was not radioactive because it washed out to sea before the plant melted down.

Last year, NOAA discontinued computer modeling of where the debris might be. A state program, funded with a $250,000 grant from Japan, to clean California beaches expires in June, the Coastal Commission’s Schwartz said. But the efforts of 16,412 volunteers who took part in organized events four times a year since 2013 from San Diego to Oregon weren’t in vain, he said.

“They picked up thousands of bags of other trash,” he said. “We ended up with cleaner beaches and more engaged people.”

©2016 San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)
Visit the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) at www.mercurynews.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
 

In a May, 2013 file photo, Scott Milner, of the San Luis Obispo (Calif.) County Department of Environmental Health, uses a radiation measuring device to check Avila Beach for any dangerous debris that has drifted from Japan as a result of a tsunami.
LAURA DICKSINSON, SAN LUIS OBISPO TRIBUNE/TNS

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