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Tsunami Debris Sightings Way Down, But May Spike Again

Oregon Chapter of Surfrider Foundation
An Oregon beach cleanup earlier this month collected this possible tsunami debris.

Hotline calls and emails to report suspected Japanese tsunami debris have gone way down this year. But West Coast states are still keeping their guard up in case another wave of flotsam from the 2011 disaster washes up on our shores.

In 2012, there was a surge of tsunami debris sightings from Oregon to Alaska. This year, the volume of calls to Washington and Oregon's marine debris hotlines have dwindled -- in the case Oregon down to an average of one per day.

Drift models run by the federal ocean science agency NOAA suggest tsunami debris remains widely scattered across this end of the Pacific. Winter storms could blow some more of it on shore.

"With more winds coming directly from the west pushing onshore, we should see a spike in debris. That happens every winter," explains Oregon State Parks associate director Chris Havel. "We see more debris in the winter because there is trash out in the ocean. Even before the tsunami there was trash."

"We really can't predict how much or exactly where and when," adds Seattle-based NOAA marine debris coordinator Nir Barnea.

Havel and Barnea applaud volunteer beach cleanup groups for doing an effective job. Both men say it is soon time "to move on" to address floating trash in general as an ongoing problem.

Powerpoint slides presented by Barnea on Thursday to Oregon's Joint Tsunami Debris Task Force show relatively few confirmed pieces of Japanese tsunami flotsam have washed up on the Washington and Oregon coasts since the March 2011 disaster.

Havel says it's tough to be sure what trash stems from the tsunami and what came from elsewhere. He sometimes makes educated guesses based on Japanese writing or markings on distinctive pieces of construction debris or fishing gear.

Based on that, Havel estimates "anywhere from zero... to 10 to 50 percent" of the flotsam on Oregon Coast beaches was washed to sea by the Japanese tsunami.

To report suspected tsunami debris, email NOAA:

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.