Since early June, the city of Long Beach, in Southern California, has reported "three or four different kinds of Styrofoam," and "lots of plastic bottles" arriving at beaches in heretofore unseen quantities.
These "foam chunks" are believed to be the first wave of debris arriving as a result of the magnitude 9.0 earthquake (and subsequent tsunami) which struck off the eastern coast of Honshu, Japan on March 11, 2011. It is estimated that anywhere from 4 to 8 million tons of debris was picked up in waves measuring 10 meters (33 feet high), a good deal of which is thought to have sunk off Japan's coast.
However, researchers estimate that 1 to 2 million tons of flotsam are traveling the ocean's currents over an expanse "thousands of miles wide." Debris includes the remains of entire homes, fishing boats, small planes, automobiles, appliances, containers, glass, lumber, fabric, metal, plastic and the list goes on. On June 6, a nearly 70-foot-long dock which was torn loose from a fishing port in northern Japan as a result of the cataclysm, washed ashore on the central Oregon Coast about a mile north from Newport. Also attached to the dock is what local marine scientists estimate to be about 2 tons of living sea creatures, a potential serious threat to local sea life populations.
More debris is expected to hit the West Coast in the coming months and for years to come. Not to be forgotten is the fact that for decades, the world's waters have
been the recipient of plastics and other synthetic, non-biodegradable materials, creating environmental consequences of major concern long before this specific event. However, this may well be the pivotal event to remind each of us, that every helping hand matters.
Dr. Wallace "J." Nichols — scientist, marine biologist, educator, author, activist and recent guest speaker at the Pacifica Beach Coalition's Earth Day celebration (April 21, 2012) — answered several questions in regards to the floating refuse.
What if anything is known about how the debris from the tsunami is affecting marine life?
"All of the pollution from the tsunami is impacting and will continue to impact ocean wildlife in the well documented ways that it has for a long time," Nichols said. "There's just more of it from this massive event. Entanglement, ingestion, dispersal and contamination are among the issues for ocean animals."
What kinds of conversations should people on the Coast be having about the debris?
"We should all be aware and involved. Just as many have been with the chronic non-tsunami pollution that washes ashore every day," Nichols said. "All front line agencies and organizations will be even more stretched thin by the increased pollution. So, we can all ramp up our support by fundraising and volunteering." Among a number of circulating rumors, it has been expressed that that California's coastal currents will deflect debris to Hawaii.
"There's a lot of information flying around," Nichols noted. "We know that pollution from Asia washes up on our shores, and ours on theirs. Much of the tsunami-related pollution will circulate for years, decades even, before it makes landfall. What arrives on our beaches and when depends on many factors including buoyancy, size, surface currents and wind. Some of it has already made landfall. Based on the data I've seen, we should expect more through the summer into fall and then for many years into the future." "Cleaning up pollution daily from our beaches, most often plastic of some sort, is a part of coastal life for the foreseeable future," Nichols added.
On May 25, 2012, the California Coastal Commission issued guidelines for volunteers helping with tsunami debris removal. (http://www.calepa.ca.gov/Disaster/Documents/Tsunami/JapanRemoval.pdf.) Additionally, if Japan tsunami marine debris, is identified please report that discovery to the NOAA Marine Debris Program at:DisasterDebris@noaa.gov.
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