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Beachcombers Still Finding Likely Tsunami Debris More Than 5 Years After Disaster

The big Japanese earthquake and tsunami of 2011 happened more than five years ago, but debris from that disaster is still washing ashore on the Pacific Northwest coast. The chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration visited Long Beach, Washington, Friday to hear about the ongoing response. 

Local beach cleanup volunteer Russ Lewis showed NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan and Congresswomen Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Washington, a wide variety of debris he collected that had Japanese writing or labels.

“You can go out there one morning after a storm and start going down the beach,” Lewis explained. “Here’s a tote, here. Here’s a broken basket. Here’s a piece of plastic pipe, here’s some flower pots. You just don’t know what you’re going to find out there.”

Lewis said he has logged more than 700 days of volunteer cleanup duty since tsunami debris began arriving at Long Beach late in 2011. The retiree observed that tsunami debris comes in surges intermittently. It is mixed in with more mundane flotsam and jetsam. Proving that an object or piece of broken plastic stems from the tsunami is difficult except for those rare cases where a unique identifier or personal contact information is attached.

One of those rare instances happened just two weeks ago. Another in a series of derelict fiberglass boats of Japanese origin washed ashore south of the Kalaloch  Resort on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. The Japanese Consulate is working to confirm if that fishing boat was lost during the tsunami using the vessel identification number.

The roughly 20-foot long boat was coated in seaweed and barnacles indicating it had been at sea for a long time. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Invasive Species Specialist Allen Pleus said a close inspection of the hull found a few Japanese coastal species.

In her opening remarks to the local, state and federal representatives gathered in Long Beach, Sullivan calledthe tide of marine trash from all sources “a creeping crisis” and said marine debris poses “a systemic threat to the ocean.”

“Marine debris is an everyday global and largely preventable problem,” Sullivan said.

The leader of a volunteer beach cleanup group called the Grassroots Garbage Gang provided eye-popping statistics for the NOAA administrator to chew on. Shelley Pollock projected a chart that showed how volunteers picked up 15 tons of trash on the Long Beach Peninsula in 2004. That rose over subsequent years to 22 tons in 2008, 27 tons in 2010, and last year to more than 32 tons of beach trash.

In a subsequent presentation, Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary research coordinator Liam Antrim described thestandardized surveys and methodical inventory of marine debris that have taken place on protected beaches near the northwestern tip of Washington since 2012.

“It really is mostly plastic,” Antrim reported. “You know, 92 percent by our recent analysis is plastic debris in various forms.”

He showed pictures of broken fishing gear, foam insulation and aquaculture remnants which appear to come from Asia.

“The plastic is becoming part of the geology of our coastline. It’s breaking into smaller pieces and becoming a portion of the sand,” Antrim said in an interview with public radio.

NOAA Administrator Sullivan said the federal government is now providing foreign aid to tropical nations to improve “garbage management.” Closer to home, NOAA provided seed funding so that the Quinault Indian Nation and The Nature Conservancy could launch a multi-year project to recover derelict fishing gear, chiefly commercial crab pots lost or abandoned in coastal waters.