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Researchers Ask Fishermen to Watch for Transponders

Oregon Task Force Outlines Earthquake and Tsunami Preparation Initiatives


Researchers are asking commercial fishermen and others to keep a weather eye out for transponders like this, which were launched in the wake of the 2011 tsunami that devastated parts of Japan and sucked an estimated 2 million tons of debris into the ocean. The transponders were designed to trace the movement of the debris. Photo courtesy of Oregon State University.

They bear an uncanny resemblance to a two-liter bottle of orange soda with a short antenna, and researchers are asking commercial and recreational fishermen, as well as coastal residents, visitors and beachcombers, to keep a weather eye out for them.

The bottle mimics are actually transponders – floating packs of instruments launched into the ocean two to three years ago from various ports in Japan in the wake of the March 2011 earthquake-spawned tsunami that devastated parts of Japan. The tidal waves rippled across the Pacific Ocean to wreak varying degrees of havoc and destruction in many places along the coasts of Oregon, Washington, California, Alaska and Hawaii.

The tsunami also sucked tons of flotsam and jetsam into the Pacific Ocean, initially creating a mass of debris 1,000 miles wide and 2,000 miles long that dispersed or broke into smaller patches as it moved through the ocean's currents. Using today's form of "dead reckoning" – computer modeling of winds and currents, scientists tracked the debris as it traversed the sea. Their predictions of where and when it might show up offshore and on Pacific coast beaches were 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. Scientists also said this debris carried with it concerns about possible radiation and chemical contamination, along with potentially costly cleanup efforts.

Uncertainty over what was floating and where the ocean's whims might carry it prompted researchers to launch the transponders to try to trace the movement of the debris and predict when and where it might show up in Pacific Northwest waters and on the region's shores.

Pacific Northwest commercial fishermen know the hazards of ocean debris, which includes tons of derelict fishing gear lost each season, and their eyes-on-the-sea vigilance has already paid off in spotting chunks of the tsunami detritus. In December 2012, the crew aboard F/V Lady Nancy spotted a huge dock floating northwest of Grays Harbor, Washington and reported it. A US Coast Guard helicopter then located the behemoth – a similar-sized companion piece to the massive 165-ton concrete-and-steel dock that washed ashore at Agate Beach in Newport, Oregon earlier that year – on a rugged remote beach between LaPush and the mouth of the Hoh River near Forks, Washington (about 100 miles west of Seattle).

Now researchers say fishermen venturing out in pursuit of salmon and other fish could scoop up some of these transponders into their nets, and if so, could assist the debris monitoring effort even more by reporting the find and returning the instruments.

One of the first transponders discovered in the Northwest washed ashore near Arch Cape, Oregon, in March 2013, about 19 months after it was set adrift. Those who found it reported it to Sam Chan, a watershed health specialist with Oregon State University and Oregon Sea Grant, who began collaborating with researchers from Tattori University for Environmental Studies in Japan. The NOAA Marine Debris Program is also involved with the project.

Chan said the estimated 2 million tons of debris the tsunami swept into the ocean is expected to drift along the Pacific Northwest coast for several more years – maybe as long as a decade.

"These transponders only have a battery life of about 30 months and then they no longer communicate their location," he noted. "So the only way to find out where they end up is to physically find them and report their location. These bottles contain transmitters and they are not hazardous."

Those who net or find a transponder are asked to photograph it if possible, and report the location of their find to Chan at, or to the NOAA Marine Debris Program regional coordinator in their area at They will provide shipping instructions for returning the transponders to the research team.

"These transponders have recorded a lot of important data that will help us better understand the movement of tsunami and marine debris throughout the Pacific Ocean," Chan said.

When, Not If

With visions of the devastation and debris from the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami on their minds, members of the Governor's Task Force on Resilience Plan Implementation recently released its recommendations to the Oregon legislature "an ambitious program to save lives, mitigate damage and prepare for" the looming massive earthquake and tsunami that experts say is a matter of when, not if the Pacific Northwest.

Those recommendations, if enacted, would result in spending more than $200 million every biennium for a long-term initiative that task force members say would involve nearly everyone in the state, and would become "one of the most aggressive efforts in the nation" to prepare for a costly, life-threatening disaster considered catastrophic and inevitable.

"We have a clear plan for what needs to be done, and now is the time to take our first significant steps forward," said Scott Ashford, dean of the College of Engineering at Oregon State University, who chaired the task force, which included members of the Oregon legislature, advisers to Gov. John Kitzhaber, representatives of private companies, Oregon Office of Emergency Management, Oregon Department of Transportation, Oregon Health Authority, and city, county and business leaders, among others.

"The scope of the disaster that the Pacific Northwest faces is daunting," said Ashford, an expert on liquefaction and earthquake engineering, who has studied disasters all over the world similar to those that Oregon would face. "We won't be able to accomplish everything we need to do in one or two years, but hopefully we won't have to. What's important is to get started, and the time for that is now."

Completed in 2013, the Oregon Resilience Plan outlines more than 140 recommendations to reduce risk and improve recovery from a massive earthquake and tsunami on the Cascadia Subduction Zone similar to the one that overwhelmed Fukushima, Japan, in 2011. It identified specific steps recommended for Oregon's 2015-17 biennium, which focus, among other things, on the special risks coastal residents – including commercial fishermen – face from a major earthquake-spawned tsunami.

Port officials say much could be done to mitigate damage, but commercial fishermen say they also know that nothing can completely withstand or thwart nature's fury. When the earthquake-tsunami duo strikes, survival and mitigation of damages for fishermen would, they say, depend primarily on their location – whether docked in port, cruising just offshore, or farther out to sea.

Still, anything to stave off as much destruction as possible is welcome, and they know it won't come cheap.

The task force recommends biennial funding of $200 million or more for the OBDD/IFA Seismic Rehabilitation Grant Program, with similar or higher levels of funding in the future. Those funds would go to rehabilitating existing public structures (schools, hospitals, and such) to improve seismic safety, demolishing unsafe structures, or replacing facilities that must move out of the tsunami inundation zone. The task force also recommended identifying additional revenue to complete work within a decade on the most critical roads and bridges that form "backbone" transportation routes; providing $20 million to the state Department of Geology and Mineral Industries to update inventory and evaluate critical facilities; and make $5 million available through existing programs for tsunami resilience planning by coastal communities (a paltry sum for the ones, a few commercial fishermen noted wryly, most likely to feel the effects of a major offshore earthquake-generated tsunami).

Utility companies regulated by the Oregon Public Utility Commission would also be required to conduct seismic assessments of their facilities, and allowed - through rate increases - to recover their costs if they make prudent investments to mitigate vulnerabilities.

"When I studied areas hard-hit by earthquakes in Chile, New Zealand and Japan, it became apparent that money spent to prepare for and minimize damage from the earthquake was hugely cost-effective," Ashford noted. "There's a lot we can do right now that will make a difference and save money in the long run."

Other key recommendations included using the most recent tsunami hazard maps to redefine the inundation zone for construction; providing $1 million annually for scientific research by Oregon universities as matching funds for earthquake research supported by the state, federal government or private industry; providing $500,000 to the Office of Emergency Management for educational programs and training aimed at managers, agencies, businesses and the general public; providing $500,000 to the Department of Education to lead a K-12 educational program; requiring water providers and wastewater agencies to complete a seismic risk assessment and mitigation plan, as part of periodic updates to master plans; and requiring firefighting agencies, water providers and emergency management officials to create joint standards to use in a firefighting response to a large seismic event.

For now, action lurks in the background like the earthquake-tsunami itself.

"Our next steps will include a lot of discussion, with the legislature, with business and community leaders, with the general public all over the state," Ashford said. "The challenges we face are enormous, but I really believe Oregonians are ready to take an important step toward resilience. This is our chance."


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