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Washed Up

Beached dock in Washington provides tsunami debris reminder


National Park Service

Another huge piece of dock dislodged by the earthquake-generated tsunami that inundated Japan in March 2011 beached itself on a Pacific Northwest shore. The dock piece – one of four carried out to sea by the tsunami – lodged itself in a remote section of wilderness beach near Forks, Washington, in what is part of the Olympic National Park. NOAA officials say it’s a reminder of what lies ahead: the likelihood of much more debris appearing in the offshore waters and reaching the shores of Washington and Oregon in 2013 and beyond.

Another gigantic dock piece beached itself on a remote Pacific Northwest shore on December 18 – an early “Christmas gift” from the earthquake-spawned tsunami that devastated Japan in March 2011.

Commercial fishermen along the Pacific Coast know the hazards of ocean debris, which includes tons of derelict fishing gear lost each season. But early last year, they began watching for the mother lode as estimated 2 million tons of flotsam and jetsam of all shapes and sizes sucked into the ocean by the tsunami began wending its way toward the United States.

Their eyes-on-the-sea vigilance paid off when the crew aboard F/V Lady Nancy spotted the dock floating northwest of Grays Harbor, Washington and reported it.

A US Coast Guard helicopter located the behemoth – which officials said was similar in size and structure to the massive 165-ton concrete-and-steel dock that washed ashore at Agate Beach in Newport, Oregon last June – December 18 on a rugged remote beach between LaPush and the mouth of the Hoh River near Forks, Washington (about 100 miles west of Seattle). The site is part of the 70 miles of wilderness beaches in the Olympic National Park, with waters included within the 3,188-square-mile Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary.

Nasty weather and the harsh terrain kept investigators from reaching the dock until December 21.

A team of state and federal representatives led by Steven Fradken of the National Park Service (NPS) featured Allen Pleus, aquatic invasive species coordinator for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), researchers from Oregon State University (OSU), and others from NPS and WDFW. Samples taken from the dock revealed species of flora and fauna known to live in Japan, but they found no identifying plaque like the one attached to the dock that ran aground in Newport.

They did, however, discover Japanese writing in one of the holds.

US Senator Maria Cantwell’s office later reported confirmation of the dock as tsunami debris based on photos (some taken by fishermen) analyzed by a researcher working under a National Science Foundation grant to track such debris. A spokesman from Washington’s Marine Debris Task Force said that while the dock is likely from the tsunami (possibly the final piece of four owned by Aomori Prefecture that broke loose from the port of Misawa during the tsunami and a sister of the Newport dock), they will follow protocol established between the United States and Japan to reach definitive determinations.

The Olympic site is accessible only on foot via primitive trails across rough terrain and treacherous stream crossings. Strong wind, storm surges and high tides make the stretch of rocky shoreline a sometimes-risky venture.

Washington Ecology Department officials say a six-person team from Olympic National Park and WDFW made the trek on January 3, decontaminated the outer dock surface with diluted bleach solution, and scraped off more than 400 pounds of organic material. Initial lab examinations identified up to 50 species of plants and animals native to Japan and not found in the United States, among them algae, seaweed, mussels and barnacles.

Pleus said most of those species on the Olympic dock were also on the Newport dock, but none were the highly invasive species found at Agate Beach.

Responders also took samples to check for radioactive contamination, which officials say is unlikely. They also attached a tracking buoy to the dock that transmits its location twice daily in case it somehow drifts back out to sea before state officials can work out a plan to remove it.

Getting Ready

Some debris from the tsunami has already traversed the Pacific and reached shorelines in the United States and Canada. More is likely to arrive, and state and federal officials are busy monitoring the situation and preparing for potentially costly cleanup.

In July 2012, NOAA provided $50,000 each to Alaska, Hawaii, Washington, Oregon and California to support response efforts. Cantwell (D-Wash.) is seeking $20 million in federal funding for tsunami debris removal. Other state and federal leaders are also looking for funding.

In November 2012, Japan announced a gift of $5 million through NOAA’s Marine Debris Program to support those response efforts.

“The tragedy set in motion by the earthquake and tsunami continues to be tangible, but it brought our nations together,” said Jane Lubchenco, NOAA’s administrator. “We appreciate this partnership and collaboration with Japan as we work to keep our ocean and coasts healthy.”

Since the disaster, NOAA has led efforts by local, state and federal partners to coordinate a response, collect data, assess debris, and reduce potential impacts to natural resources and coastal communities. NOAA will use the funds from Japan to cover marine debris removal, disposal fees, cleanup supplies, detection and monitoring. NOAA officials are asking everyone to help in the debris watch process, including commercial fishermen.

A mass of debris that was once 1,000 miles wide and 2,000 miles long has dispersed or broken up into smaller patches. Much of it might never get here. Uncertainty over what’s still floating and where the ocean’s whims might carry it make predictions challenging, but not impossible.

With so much uncertainty, federal, state and local officials in Washington, Oregon and northern California are following the tried-and-true Boy Scout motto: Be prepared.

During a January 2012 briefing at Oregon State University (OSU)’s Hatfield Marine Science Center, representatives from OSU, NOAA and other federal, state and local agencies described the situation for US Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), who subsequently urged officials to develop a response plan that “prepares for the worst while hoping for the best” in a letter to NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco.

“Because the potential for damage to Oregon’s fishing, crabbing, shipping and tourism industries is a major concern, it is vital that federal, state and local agencies and outside organizations work together to get ahead of this issue,” he wrote. “This kind of broad-scale cooperation and coordination at every level is crucial to minimizing overlap and ensuring that accurate information is available to everyone who could come in contact with this debris, be it on water or on the beaches.”

NOAA researchers are working with other agencies to coordinate data collection and develop an interagency assessment and response plan for a wide range of potential scenarios and threats.

Nancy Wallace, director of NOAA’s Marine Debris Program, said they’re preparing for best- and worst-case scenarios, and “everything in between.”

Marine debris is a perennial problem on Pacific shores, with numerous groups like Stop Oregon Litter and Vandalism (SOLV) organizing annual or more frequent beach cleanups to remove tons of detritus. A number of ports and harbors in Washington, Oregon and California spent huge amounts of time and money to repair damage and clear away debris in the aftermath of the tsunami waves that rippled across 4,500 miles of ocean from Japan to wreak havoc along the Pacific coast last March.

Worst-case: Boats and unmanageable concentrations of objects that could clog harbors and small ports, interfere with navigation, and overwhelm shores.

Best case: The debris breaks up completely, eventually degrades or disintegrates and disperses.

Most likely scenario: The debris won’t disappear. The only question is how much will show up.

Using today’s form of “dead reckoning” – computer modeling of winds and currents, scientists are tracking the debris as it traverses the sea. They say most of what survives the journey would likely reach Oregon and Washington in 2013 and 2014, although lighter flotsam could invade as early as autumn 2012. They also caution that predictions are based on the location of the debris when it entered the water combined with knowledge of historical ocean currents and wind speeds. Ocean conditions constantly change.

Debris can sink, break down, disperse, or get caught in swirling trash heaps – dubbed “garbage patches” by oceanographers – within ocean gyres. Recent monitoring indicates that at least some of the tsunami debris would pull away and get caught in one of the north Pacific gyres.

“Recent reports of debris are from farther south than the axis of the main ocean currents sweeping across the north Pacific toward Oregon,” said Jack Barth, an OSU oceanographer and expert on Pacific Ocean currents, noting that “a fair amount” of the debris could join the gyre’s trash heap. “We should still see some of the effects in Oregon and Washington, but between some of the materials sinking, and others joining the garbage patch, it might not be as bad as was originally thought.”

Breaking Up

As time passes, Barth said more of the materials would sink as they become waterlogged or gain weight from barnacles and other organisms attached to them.

Other items – small boats, for example – that ride higher and catch the wind could arrive sooner than expected. Winds known as “westerlies” blow directly across the Pacific from Japan to the Pacific Northwest shores “can be pretty strong,” he noted. Still, reports of the flotsam flotilla arriving well ahead of schedule don’t match Barth’s calculations, and fears of radioactive contamination are “largely unfounded” because the Pacific’s “enormous” dilution power.

Where all the flotsam could actually end up also depends on the season and local winds, said Barth, basing his observation on a five-year study he led after the wreck of the New Carissa off Oregon’s central coast. The oil that spilled from the vessel defied computer ocean current models, ending up in places that caught scientists by surprise.

“One thing we learned is when things get dumped off the Oregon coast in winter, they go quickly northward. If the debris arrives in the winter, some of it may get pushed to Vancouver Island,” said Barth. “If it gets here in the summer, it’s more likely to drift to the south.” Prevailing local winds tend to keep debris offshore in the summer, and nudge it onshore during winter.

NOAA has taken the lead role in monitoring the situation, working with the US Environmental Protection Agency, US Fish and Wildlife and others to coordinate data collection and formulate a response plan focused on what Wyden called “the wide range of potential scenarios and threats generated by the debris field.” NOAA officials say the debris field has broken up into smaller patches and individual items scattered across a vast ocean area. Computer models can only predict general path and drift rate, and winds and ocean currents are in constant flux. It’s possible, they note, that most of the debris would ultimately break up, sink or get caught in the gyrating garbage patches.

In whatever amounts, scientists say tsunami flotsam is headed toward Oregon’s central coast, and Wyden wanted NOAA officials to “prioritize the development of a response plan for West Coast states, and help communities and agencies along the coast plan and prepare for any eventualities related to the arrival of the debris.” He suggested that all agencies with any jurisdiction “build upon” their current interagency efforts to prepare, and urged them to provide “a unified message” to give the public “a one-stop shopping resource” for information and updates.

Flotsam, Jetsam and Lagan

Emergency preparedness aside, the debris also provides an opportunity for scientific research at all levels.

Flotsam, jetsam and lagan offer vital clues to the sea’s secrets.

Jetsam is the term for anything – such as ballast, cargo, or equipment – that intentionally or accidentally goes overboard during a vessel’s voyage. If jetsam sinks, joining wrecked ships on the sea floor, it’s called lagan. If jetsam floats, it becomes flotsam, which can traverse thousands of miles of watery terrain before finding refuge on a sandy or rocky shore, awaiting discovery by an intrepid “flotsamist”.

Depending on their densities and ocean currents, items can go through stages before reaching shore. Jetsam can become lagan, and then become flotsam, then become lagan again, until a forceful current lifts it into a cresting wave headed for shore.

Some years bring big flotsam events, when massive amounts of stuff wash ashore due to certain wind and weather patterns, which bring in entire flotillas of flotsam. Depending on how the ocean sorts things out, flotsamists could have a field day this year and beyond.

As of the end of 2012, NOAA officials say only 17 of the 1,450 debris reports received by the agency are tsunami-related. The number could rise significantly, beginning this year. Local, state and federal leaders urge commercial fishermen and others to stay alert and – like those aboard F/V Lady Nancy – report anything they see in offshore waters.

For the latest on the tsunami flotsam, go to


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