NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution


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April Showers Bring … Marine Debris to Pacific Northwest Beaches?

This is a post by Amy MacFadyen, oceanographer and modeler in the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division.

Over the last few weeks, emergency managers in coastal Washington and Oregon have noted an increase in the marine debris arriving on our beaches. Of particular note, numerous skiffs potentially originating from the Japan tsunami in March 2011 have washed up. Four of these boats arrived in Washington over the Memorial Day weekend alone.

This seasonal arrival of marine debris—ranging from small boats and fishing floats to household cleaner bottles and sports balls—on West Coast shores seems to be lasting longer into the spring than last year. As a result, coastal managers dealing with the large volume of debris on their beaches are wondering if the end is in sight.

As an oceanographer at NOAA, I have been trying to answer this question by examining how patterns of wind and currents in the North Pacific Ocean change with the seasons and what that means for marine debris showing up on Pacific Northwest beaches.

What Does the Weather Have to Do with It?

Beachcombers know the best time to find treasure on the Pacific Northwest coast is often after winter storms. Winter in this region is characterized by frequent rainfall (hence, Seattle’s rainy reputation) and winds blowing up the coast from the south or southwest. These winds push water onshore and cause what oceanographers call “downwelling”—a time of lower growth and reproduction for marine life because offshore ocean waters with fewer nutrients are brought towards the coast. These conditions are also good for bringing marine debris from out in the ocean onto the beach, as was the case for this giant Japanese dock that came ashore in December 2012.

These winter storms are associated with the weather phenomenon known as the “Aleutian Low,” a low pressure system of air rotating counter-clockwise, which is usually located near Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. In winter, the Aleutian Low intensifies and moves southward from Alaska, bringing wind and rain to the Pacific Northwest. During late spring, the Aleutian Low retreats to the northwest and becomes less intense. Around the same time, a high pressure system located off California known as the “North Pacific High” advances north up the West Coast, generating drier summer weather and winds from the northwest.

Graphic showing the typical summer and winter locations of pressure systems in the North Pacific Ocean.

The typical location of the pressure systems in the North Pacific Ocean in winter and summer. “AL” refers to the low-pressure “Aleutian Low” and “NPH” refers to the high-pressure “North Pacific High” system. Used with permission of Jennifer Galloway, Marine Micropaleontology (2010). *See full credit below.

This summer change to winds coming from the northwest also brings a transition from “downwelling” to “upwelling” conditions in the ocean. Upwelling occurs when surface water near the shore is moved offshore and replaced by nutrient-rich water moving to the surface from the ocean depths, which fuels an increase in growth and reproduction of marine life.

The switch from a winter downwelling state to a summer upwelling state is known as the “spring transition” and can occur anytime between March and June. Oceanographers and fisheries managers are often particularly interested in the timing of this spring transition because, in general, the earlier the transition occurs, the greater the ecosystem productivity will be that year—see what this means for Pacific Northwest salmon. As we have seen this spring, the timing may also affect the volume of marine debris reaching Pacific Northwest beaches.

Why Is More Marine Debris Washing up This Year?

NOAA has been involved in modeling the movement of marine debris generated by the March 2011 Japan tsunami for several years. We began this modeling to answer questions about when the tsunami debris would first reach the West Coast of the United States and which regions might be impacted. The various types of debris are modeled as “particles” originating in the coastal waters of Japan, which are moved under the influence of winds and ocean currents. For more details on the modeling, visit the NOAA Marine Debris website.

The estimated arrival of modeled "particles" (representing Japanese tsunami marine debris) on the West Coast of the United States between May 2011 and May 2014.

The estimated arrival of modeled “particles” (representing Japanese tsunami marine debris) on Washington and Oregon shores between May 2011 and May 2014. (NOAA)

The figure here shows the percentage of particles representing Japan tsunami debris reaching the shores of Washington and Oregon over the last two years. The first of the model’s particles reached this region’s shores in late fall and early winter of 2011–2012. This is consistent with the first observations of tsunami debris reaching the coast, which were primarily light, buoyant objects such as large plastic floats, which “feel” the winds more than objects that float lower in the water, and hence move faster. The largest increases in model particles reaching the Pacific Northwest occur in late winter and spring (the big jumps in vertical height on the graph). After the spring transition and the switch to predominantly northwesterly winds and upwelling conditions, very few particles come ashore (where the graph flattens off).

Interestingly, the model shows many fewer particles came ashore in the spring of 2013 than in the other two years. This may be related to the timing of the spring transition. According to researchers at Oregon State University, the transition to summer’s upwelling conditions occurred approximately one month earlier in 2013 (early April). Their timing of the spring transition for the past three years, estimated using a time series of wind measured offshore of Newport, Oregon, is shown by the black vertical lines in the figure.

The good news for coastal managers—and those of us who enjoy clean beaches—is that according to this indicator, we are finally transitioning from one of the soggiest springs on record into the upwelling season. This should soon bring a drop in the volume of marine debris on our beaches, hopefully along with some sunny skies to get out there and enjoy our beautiful Pacific Northwest coast.

*Pressure system graphic originally found in: Favorite, F.A., et al., 1976. Oceanography of the subarctic Pacific region, 1960–1971. International North Pacific Fisheries Commission Bulletin 33, 1–187. Referenced in and with permission of: Galloway, J.M., et al., 2010. A high-resolution marine palynological record from the central mainland coast of British Columbia, Canada: Evidence for a mid-late Holocene dry climate interval. Marine Micropaleontology 75, 62–78.

Amy MacFadyenAmy MacFadyen is a physical oceanographer at the Emergency Response Division of the Office of Response and Restoration (NOAA). The Emergency Response Division provides scientific support for oil and chemical spill response — a key part of which is trajectory forecasting to predict the movement of spills. During the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Amy helped provide daily trajectories to the incident command. Before moving to NOAA, Amy was at the University of Washington, first as a graduate student then as a postdoctoral researcher. Her research examined transport of harmful algal blooms from offshore initiation sites to the Washington coast.


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No Solid Mass of Debris from Japan in the Pacific Ocean

Here is an example of confirmed Japan tsunami marine debris arriving in the U.S.: a 4-by-4-foot plastic bin spotted off the eastern coast of Oahu, Hawaii, on September 18, 2012.

There is no solid island of debris from Japan heading to the United States. Here is an example of confirmed Japan tsunami marine debris arriving in the U.S.: a 4-by-4-foot plastic bin spotted off the eastern coast of Oahu, Hawaii, on September 18, 2012. The barnacles on its bottom are a common open-water species. (Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory)

We’ve heard a concern from some of you that there’s an island of debris in the Pacific Ocean coming from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. For those of you who may be new to this topic, we’d like to address those concerns.

Here’s the bottom line: There is no solid mass of debris from Japan heading to the United States.

At this point, nearly three years after the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, whatever debris remains floating is very spread out. It is spread out so much that you could fly a plane over the Pacific Ocean and not see any debris since it is spread over a huge area, and most of the debris is small, hard-to-see objects.

We have some helpful resources for you, if you’re interested in learning more.

While there likely is some debris still floating at sea, the North Pacific is an enormous area, and it’s hard to tell exactly where the debris is or how much is left. A significant amount of debris has already arrived on U.S. and Canadian shores, and it will likely continue arriving in the same scattered way over the next several years. As we get further into the fall and winter storm season, NOAA and partners are expecting to see more debris coming ashore in North America, including tsunami debris mixed in with the “normal” marine debris that we see every year.

NOAA has modeled the debris’ movement, and the model shows the overall spread of all simulated debris and an area where there may be a higher concentration of lower floating debris (such as wood) in one part of the Pacific. However, that doesn’t mean it’s in a mass, and it doesn’t tell us how much is there, it just shows there may be more debris there than in other areas. Observations of the area with satellites have not shown any debris.

Even though there’s no mass, addressing this debris is very important. NOAA has worked with partners in the states to monitor the debris, form response plans, and try to mitigate any impacts. We’ll continue that work as long as necessary. We’re happy to answer any questions you may have. Feel free to email us at MarineDebris.Web@noaa.gov.


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Ready for a Vacation on the Coast? Thank NOAA for Helping Keep it Clean

The San Miguel Natural Reserve in Puerto Rico is made up of 422 acres of protected coastal lands and was acquired to compensate the public after a barge ran aground, damaging coral and spilling oil. (NOAA)

The San Miguel Natural Reserve in Puerto Rico is made up of 422 acres of protected coastal lands and was acquired to compensate the public after a barge ran aground, damaging coral and spilling oil near San Juan in 1994. (NOAA)

Spending time at the beach is reported to be one of America’s favorite vacation memories [PDF]. So, when our coasts become polluted, the effects can seem both traumatic and personal: damaged habitats; dirtied water; injured birds, fish, wildlife, and plants; and blemished places where we boat, fish, and play. But thanks to NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, we help reverse these impacts—whether from an oil spill, toxic chemicals, or marine debris—through our scientific solutions for protecting and restoring our favorite natural places.

To celebrate National Travel and Tourism Week (May 4-12), we have gathered a few examples of the places you can visit that our office is helping protect and restore.

San Juan, Puerto Rico

Sandy beaches, swaying palm trees, and turquoise waters—Puerto Rico is the quintessential tropical vacation destination. Besides surfing, snorkeling, and swimming at its more than 270 miles of beaches, this Caribbean island offers jungle adventures, resort relaxation, and Spanish colonial history. But on an island only 110 miles long and 40 miles wide, the ocean is never far away.

On January 7, 1994, just before dawn, a barge the length of a football field plowed into the picturesque surf near San Juan, Puerto Rico. When it grounded, the Tank Barge Morris J. Berman damaged coral reefs and spilled 800,000 gallons of a thick, black fuel oil into the deep blue waters off Puerto Rico’s Atlantic coast. After the grounding, the barge continued to leak, spilling more than 85,000 gallons of oily water as it was towed offshore and scuttled (intentionally sunk) 23 miles northeast of San Juan. About 169 miles of ocean and bay shorelines were affected by the spilled oil, disrupting beachgoers, boaters, and sportfishers for up to three months in some areas. The oil also crept onto the shoreline of several historic sites, including San Juan National Historic Site, a National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site. And in the end, nearly 111,000 square feet of coral reef were damaged from the grounded barge and subsequent response measures.

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NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration was involved in a variety of activities from the start: forecasting the oil’s spread, performing aerial surveys of the spill, assessing impacted shorelines, and advising the Coast Guard on potential environmental impacts of sinking the leaking barge. Our involvement carried beyond spill cleanup and extended to evaluating and determining how the spill injured natural resources, which included people’s use of them. To compensate the public for the spill’s impacts, we helped implement a suite of projects focused on restoring damaged reefs, recreational beach use, and lost tourism at San Juan National Historic Site.

To begin restoring the coral ecosystems, NOAA and our partners built the Condado Coral Reef Trail, comprised of three underwater educational trails adjacent to a public beach. Along each trail, we placed ten pre-made artificial cement reefs, intended to establish similar reef habitat to that damaged by the barge grounding. This project wrapped up in the fall of 2008 and provides an incredible first-hand opportunity to learn about coral reefs and restoring natural resources in Puerto Rico.

San Francisco, California

According to the San Francisco Travel Association, more than 16.5 million visitors traveled to San Francisco, Calif., in 2012. Known as the “City by the Bay,” San Francisco is closely connected to its maritime heritage and marine resources. Fisherman’s Wharf is a popular northern waterfront area home to the city’s fleet of fishing boats, many of whose owners have been fishing there for three generations and bringing in the fresh seafood both locals and tourists savor. The Golden Gate Bridge, the city’s most iconic bridge, links San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean and its bustling maritime commerce.

Point Bonita is in the foreground, looking across sheens of oil (lighter colored) from the Cosco Busan spill and eastward to Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay. (NOAA)

Point Bonita is in the foreground, looking across sheens of oil (lighter colored) from the Cosco Busan spill and eastward to Golden Gate
Bridge and San Francisco Bay. (NOAA)

But on the typically foggy morning of November 7, 2007, the 900-foot cargo ship Cosco Busan slammed against the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and caused one of the largest oil spills in the bay’s history. Scraping a 100-foot-long gash into the vessel’s side, the crash released 53,000 gallons of a thick fuel oil, which quickly dispersed into the surrounding waters and onto sensitive coastline both in the bay and along the outer coast. Similar to our efforts after the barge grounding in Puerto Rico, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration provided forecasts of the oil’s path, aerial oil surveys, oiled shoreline assessment, and other scientific support for the spill response.

In the foreground, the Bay Bridge tower that was hit by the M/V Cosco Busan, spilling oil into San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. November 9, 2007 (NOAA)

In the foreground, the Bay Bridge tower that was hit by the M/V Cosco Busan, spilling oil into San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. Photo: November 9, 2007 (NOAA)

NOAA and our partners determined that, as a result, the incident oiled more than 3,300 acres of shoreline habitat, killed an estimated 6,849 birds and thousands of herring, and lost an estimated 1,079,900 possible recreational days for individuals. In addition, it temporarily closed a dozen urban beaches [PDF], and even shoreline along Alcatraz Island, a National Park and home to the infamous prison, suffered heavy oiling after the spill. More than $30 million was awarded from the company responsible to restore injured birds, fish, eelgrass vegetation, habitat, and lost outdoor recreation.

The bulk of these funds (tentatively $18.8 million) is allocated for a slew of improvements benefiting Bay Area recreational activities, such as picnicking, hiking, surfing, kiteboarding, fishing, and boating. These projects will take place in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Point Reyes National Seashore, and other areas of the East Bay and San Mateo and Marin County. They range from improving beach and fishing access and enhancing trails and shorelines to repairing waterfront park infrastructure and supporting lifeguard and educational programs. Restoration is expected to begin in the summer of 2013, helping turn back the harmful effects of this oil spill on the City by the Bay.

Olympic Coast, Washington

A landscape view of the rugged Washington coast, with cleanup workers dismantling the dock and removing plastic foam to the right. Photo: March 18, 2013 (National Park Service/John Gussman)

A landscape view of the rugged Washington coast, with cleanup workers dismantling the dock and removing plastic foam to the right. Photo: March 18, 2013 (National Park Service/John Gussman)

Visitors flock each year to Washington’s breathtaking Olympic Peninsula to go hiking, camping, kayaking, and harvesting clams and oysters (just for starters). Driving the 350 miles along the Pacific Coast Scenic Byway, you can access an impressive amount of diversity along this state’s coast. From foggy sea stacks poking out of the Pacific Ocean to giant red cedars standing sentinel in old-growth forests to tide pools populated with vibrant orange and purple starfish, this coast abounds with natural wonders.

In December of 2012, however, a remote portion of the Olympic Coast received an unusual “visitor”: a 185 ton, 65-foot floating dock. Swept away from the Port of Misawa during Japan’s 2011 tsunami, it ended up beached within NOAA’s Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary and a designated wilderness portion of Olympic National Park. The dock was built out of plastic foam housed in steel-reinforced concrete, which had been damaged as changing tides and waves continued to shift the dock’s placement in the surf. A threat to the environment, visitors, and wildlife, its foam was escaping to the surrounding beach and waters, where it could have been eaten by the coast’s whales, seals, birds, and fish.

Staging the dock's plastic foam for transport, when it was transferred off the coast via helicopter. Photo: March 18, 2013 (National Park Service/John Gussman)

Staging the dock’s plastic foam for transport, when it was transferred off the coast via helicopter. Photo: March 18, 2013 (National Park Service/John Gussman)

According to the Washington Department of Ecology website, “the intertidal area of the Olympic Coast is home to the most diverse ecosystem of marine invertebrates and seaweeds on the west coast of North America … Leaving the dock in place could [have] result[ed] in the release of over 200 cubic yards of foam into federally protected waters and wilderness coast.”

Fortunately, in March 2013, the National Park Service and NOAA worked with a local salvage company to dismantle and remove this hazard to the coast, using both federal money and a generous donation from Japan to fund the project and ensuring the Olympic Coast’s visitors can enjoy its healthy habitats for years to come.

To learn more about NOAA’s work protecting the coastal places we love to visit, go to response.restoration.noaa.gov.


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Small Boat Confirmed as First Japan Tsunami Debris to Reach California

Examining the Japanese skiff that washed up near Crescent City, Calif., on April 7, 2013. This is the first verified item from the Japan tsunami to appear in California. (Redwood Coast Tsunami Working Group)

Examining the Japanese skiff that washed up near Crescent City, Calif., on April 7, 2013. This is the first verified item from the Japan tsunami to appear in California. (Redwood Coast Tsunami Working Group)

The Consulate General of Japan in San Francisco has confirmed to NOAA that a 20-foot-long skiff found near Crescent City, Calif., is the first verified piece of Japan tsunami debris to turn up in California. Crescent City, a coastal town surrounded by redwoods, is only a twenty-mile drive from Oregon down the iconic, coastal Highway 101.

Once the skiff was found, the U.S. Coast Guard and the local sheriff’s office worked quickly to remove it from the shoreline. Help translating the Japanese writing on it came from further down the coast, from staff at California’s Humboldt State University. They traced the skiff to Takata High School, located in Japan’s Iwate Prefecture, an area devastated by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. A teacher from the school reportedly identified the vessel as belonging to them, which the Japanese Consulate has now confirmed.

A close up of the boat's hull reveals the many small gooseneck barnacles, a common open-ocean species. (Redwood Coast Tsunami Working Group)

A close up of the boat’s hull reveals the many small gooseneck barnacles, a common open-ocean species. (Redwood Coast Tsunami Working Group)

To date, 26 other marine debris items with a confirmed connection to the 2011 tsunami have washed up in Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Alaska, and Canada’s British Columbia.

And like so many of them, the small, flat-bottomed boat that washed up in California was thick with gooseneck barnacles, a common and widespread filter feeder that attaches itself to floating objects in the open ocean. While unusual-looking, these barnacles are not invasive and have a fascinating historical myth purporting that a type of goose developed from gooseneck barnacles because they had similar colors and shapes (a typical-if-faulty basis for classifying life in earlier eras).

However, the influx of sea creatures aboard tsunami marine debris also brings the concern that aquatic species hitching a ride to North America may make themselves at home, possibly to the detriment of marine life and commerce communities here in the United States.

A submerged compartment in the back of the Japanese boat that washed up in Long Beach, Wash., provided a refuge for five striped beakfish. (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife/Allen Pleus)

A submerged compartment in the back of the Japanese boat that washed up in Long Beach, Wash., provided a refuge for five striped beakfish. (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife/Allen Pleus)

This issue was highlighted in the unusual case of another small Japanese boat lost in the 2011 tsunami. The Sai-shou-maru came ashore near Long Beach, Wash., on March 22, 2013, but the inside of it looked like a miniature aquarium. Five live fish were swimming about in a submerged compartment at the back of the boat. They were striped beakfish, a species native to coral reefs mainly in Japanese waters, sometimes found in Hawaii, but certainly not in the cold waters of the Pacific Northwest coast.

According to the Washington State Department of Ecology website, “Besides the five striped beakfish found in the open well of the boat when it washed ashore, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates 30 to 50 species of plants and animals were also on the Sai-shou-maru – including potential invasive species. State officials quickly removed the Sai-shou-maru from the beach and collected samples of potential invasive species including the fish, algae, anemones, crabs, marine worms and shellfish.”

However, most of the species arriving on marine debris are not invasive—even if they are hitchhikers.

Keep up with NOAA’s latest efforts surrounding the issue of Japan tsunami marine debris at http://marinedebris.noaa.gov/tsunamidebris/faqs.html.


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Japanese Dock Lost in 2011 Tsunami Removed from Washington’s Olympic Coast

March 19, 2013 -- Workers dismantling the dock from Misawa, Japan, which washed up on Washington's Olympic Coast. (National Park Service/John Gussman)

March 19, 2013 — Workers dismantling the dock from Misawa, Japan, which washed up on Washington’s Olympic Coast in December of 2012. (National Park Service/John Gussman)

A large Japanese dock swept across the Pacific Ocean after the March 2011 tsunami has now been removed from Washington’s Olympic Coast. Cleanup workers from the Washington-based contractor, The Undersea Company, carried off the last of the now-deconstructed dock’s concrete and plastic foam from the beach where it washed ashore.

Removal work, which occurred inside Olympic National Park and NOAA’s Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, began on March 17 and concluded March 25, 2013. You can watch a time-lapse video of the dock’s removal (and related videos):

“This operation was challenging—imagine opening up a 185-ton concrete package filled with foam packing peanuts while standing near a helicopter on an extremely remote coastline,” said John Nesset, president and C.E.O. of The Undersea Company, in a NOAA press release.

March 19, 2013 -- Crews remove foam blocks from a cut-open section of the Japanese floating dock, which beached inside both a national park and national marine sanctuary. (National Park Service/John Gussman)

March 19, 2013 — Crews remove foam blocks from a cut-open section of the Japanese floating dock, which beached inside both a national park and national marine sanctuary. (National Park Service/John Gussman)

The dock, weighing 185 tons and measuring 65 feet in length, initially stranded on the Washington coast last December after it and two other docks were torn away from the Port of Misawa, Japan, during the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011.

In previous posts, NOAA mentioned that this dock and the one found near Newport, Ore., in June of 2012 were among four docks washed away from Misawa—but we are told that only three docks left the port. The Consulate-General of Japan has alerted us that “earlier news reports erroneously stated that a fourth dock was located on an island in Japan.”

The NOAA Marine Debris Blog expands further on the whereabouts of the docks:

“According to the Consulate-General of Japan, three of the four floating docks located at the Misawa Fishing Port washed away when the tsunami struck. Fishermen reportedly spotted the third missing dock floating near Oahu, north of Molokai, in Hawaii in September. It has not been located since.”

An interesting aspect is that these three docks were wrenched away from the same port in Japan at the same time during the tsunami in March of 2011. Yet, as NOAA oceanographers know quite well, predicting where the Pacific Ocean’s currents and winds might carry and eventually deposit them (and when) is a tricky task.

March 18, 2013 -- The remoteness of the location where the Japanese dock beached required a helicopter to lift loads of foam taken out of the inside of the deconstructed dock. (National Park Service/John Gussman)

March 18, 2013 — The remoteness of the location where the Japanese dock beached required a helicopter to lift loads of foam taken out of the inside of the deconstructed dock. (National Park Service/John Gussman)

So far, “one washed up on Oregon’s coast last summer, and a second beached along Washington’s coastline in December,” pointed out Asma Mahdi of the NOAA Marine Debris Program. “Two identical debris pieces that left Japan’s coast at the same time made the journey across the Pacific, but they ended up on the U.S. West Coast six months apart and in very different locations. How can we predict where marine debris will end up?”

You can gather some insight into these complexities in the latest Diving Deeper podcast from the National Ocean Service.

Sherry Lippiatt, the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s California Regional Coordinator, discusses how objects in the ocean are navigating a dynamic environment, which can affect everything from a plastic bottle to a floating dock.

Listen to the podcast here:


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Two Years after Japan Tsunami, Beached Dock to be Removed from Washington’s Olympic Coast

Swept away during the Japan tsunami of March 11, 2011, the steel, concrete, and foam dock beached at Olympic National Park, Wash., nearly two years later. (National Park Service)

Swept away during the Japan tsunami of March 11, 2011, the steel, concrete, and foam dock beached at Olympic National Park, Wash., nearly two years later. (National Park Service)

Two years after the devastating 9.0 earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, removal work is slated to begin for the 65-foot Japanese dock which washed ashore in a remote area of Washington state. The Government of Japan eventually confirmed the dock had been swept away from Misawa, Japan, during the 2011 tsunami. On December 18, 2012, the dock beached along the boundaries of Olympic National Park and NOAA’s Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary in Washington state.

Planning the Removal

NOAA has contracted a local salvage company in Washington to complete the removal efforts by early April. The contracted company will work with the Sanctuary, Park Service, and local partners in Washington to remove the dock by helicopter after dismantling it on site. This was determined to be the safest and most efficient method for removal.

Weighing approximately 185 tons, the dock is 65 feet long, 20 feet wide, and 7.5 feet tall. Most of the dock’s volume is Styrofoam-type material encased in steel-reinforced concrete. According to the Washington State Department of Ecology’s website, “The concrete has already been damaged, exposing rebar and releasing foam into the ocean and onto the beach where it can potentially be ingested by fish, birds, and marine mammals. Leaving the dock in place could result in the release of over 200 cubic yards of foam into federally protected waters and wilderness coast.”

The cost of removing the dock is being covered by NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, the National Park Service, and part of the $5 million fund Japan gifted to the U.S. for tsunami debris cleanup. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration oceanographers successfully modeled the approximate grounding location of the dock after initially being spotted by the U.S. Coast Guard in December of 2012.

Remembering a Tragedy

Beginning on March 11, 2011, the earthquake and resulting tsunami along Japan’s eastern coast claimed nearly 16,000 lives, injured 6,000, and destroyed or damaged countless buildings. As a result of the disaster, NOAA expects a portion of the debris that the tsunami washed into the ocean, such as this floating dock, to reach U.S. and Canadian shores over the next several years.

Find more information about Japan tsunami marine debris in this NOAA video and infographic, as well as at the NOAA Marine Debris Program website.


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Get Answers to All Your Questions about Japan Tsunami Marine Debris

The small boat which washed up on remote Spring Island, British Columbia, Canada, was positively identified as a vessel lost during the 2011 Japan tsunami. Credit: Kevin Head.

The small boat which washed up on remote Spring Island, British Columbia, Canada, was positively identified as a vessel lost during the 2011 Japan tsunami. Credit: Kevin Head.

What happened to the massive amounts of debris swept into the ocean by the tsunami that inundated Japan’s coast in March 2011? How much is out there? How has the NOAA Marine Debris Program, a division of the Office of Response and Restoration, been involved?

Learn the answers to these questions and more in the following NOAA video, infographic, and documents related to Japan tsunami marine debris.

Watch or download the .mov file for our video on Japan tsunami marine debris [97 MB].

Get a visual snapshot of the issue of in our Japan tsunami marine debris infographic [PDF]. Find out at a glance about subjects including what tsunami debris has been found, NOAA efforts to model its path, and the likelihood of debris carrying invasive marine species.

Learn more about the issue of Japan tsunami marine debris with this NOAA infographic. Click to enlarge and download.

Learn more about the issue of Japan tsunami marine debris with this NOAA infographic. Click to enlarge and download.

Share information about tsunami debris, get tips for cleaning up beaches, and more in our handy brochure [PDF].

If you think you have found tsunami debris from Japan, read our debris handling guidelines.

Join us during our TweetChat about tsunami debris with the Office of Response and Restoration’s Marine Debris Program Director, Nancy Wallace. She will be available on Twitter to answer questions about radioactivity, floating docks, and anything else you can think of related to Japan tsunami marine debris.

  • What: Use Twitter to chat with NOAA Marine Debris Program Director Nancy Wallace
  • When: Wednesday, March 6, 2013 at 3:00 p.m. ET
  • How: Tweet your questions to @NOAAdebris using hashtag #TsunamiDebris

Follow the conversation during or after the chat via the hashtag #TsunamiDebris on Twitter.


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How to Handle (or Not) Hazardous Marine Debris

This is a post by Nir Barnea, Washington and Oregon Marine Debris Regional Coordinator for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

Marine debris, the perennial, insidious, problem that affects oceans and coasts worldwide, has been impacting U.S. beaches for many years. After the massive tsunami struck the north eastern coast of Japan on March 11, 2011, inflicting tragic loss of human life and massive damage, a variety of items washed out to sea as the water receded. Some debris remained floating, drifting long distances by ocean currents and winds. This influx of marine debris, adding to an already existing problem, has attracted media attention as well as volunteers, who selflessly dedicate their time and energy to clean the beaches they love, picking up and recycling or disposing of plastic bottles and Styrofoam, fishing lines and floats, packaging of all sorts, and other types of debris. Their work is both welcome and appreciated. It is thanks to the thousands of volunteers that marine debris along the U.S. coastline is removed.

But, how can you tell what debris is safe to clean up? Among the thousands of debris items that wash ashore everyday, some can be hazardous.

An obvious example is large oil drums. They can contain flammable or toxic material, should be left alone, not handled or removed, and reported to proper authorities right away.  However, less obvious items, such as plastic boxes or bags with unusual symbols should be handled similarly. Medical waste, for instance, can come in small boxes or packages. A fine-looking glass jar may contain toxic material, and explosive devices may come in different shape and packaging. Often (but not always) hazardous materials are labeled.

Watch out for these specific hazard symbols and labels:

  • Look for the hazard symbols and labels, and don’t touch any item that displays these or similar labels.
  • Don’t pick up or handle any item that you are not sure about.
  • Don’t open bottles, jars, and boxes that could contain hazardous material.
  • Mark the location, warn others, take photos, and call proper authorities, providing exact location description and photos.

The bottom line: Do your part and clean up the beach from marine debris, but be smart and aware of hazardous debris. No debris is worth getting hurt over.

For more information about handling debris, check out our website: http://marinedebris.noaa.gov/japan-tsunami-marine-debris/marine-debris-handling-guidelines

Originally posted on the NOAA Marine Debris Blog.


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Where Are the Pacific Garbage Patches Located?

Microplastics in sand.

Microplastics, small plastics less than 5 millimeters long, are an increasingly common type of marine debris found in the water column (including the “garbage patches”) and on shorelines around the world. Based on research to date, most commonly used plastics do not fully degrade in the ocean and instead break down into smaller and smaller pieces. (NOAA Marine Debris Program)

The Pacific Ocean is massive. It’s the world’s largest and deepest ocean, and if you gathered up all of the Earth’s continents, these land masses would fit into the Pacific basin with a space the size of Africa to spare.

While the Pacific Ocean holds more than half of the planet’s free water, it also unfortunately holds a lot of the planet’s garbage (much of it plastic). But that trash isn’t spread evenly across the Pacific Ocean; a great deal of it ends up suspended in what are commonly referred to as “garbage patches.”

A combination of oceanic and atmospheric forces causes trash, free-floating sea life (for example, algae, plankton, and seaweed), and a variety of other things to collect in concentrations in certain parts of the ocean. In the Pacific Ocean, there are actually a few “Pacific garbage patches” of varying sizes as well as other locations where marine debris is known to accumulate.

The Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch (aka “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”)

In most cases when people talk about the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” they are referring to the Eastern Pacific garbage patch. This is located in a constantly moving and changing swirl of water roughly midway between Hawaii and California, in an atmospheric area known as the North Pacific Subtropical High.

NOAA National Weather Service meteorologist Ted Buehner describes the North Pacific High as involving “a broad area of sinking air resulting in higher atmospheric pressure, drier warmer temperatures and generally fair weather (as a result of the sinking air).”

This high pressure area remains in a semi-permanent state, affecting the movement of the ocean below. “Winds with high pressure tend to be light(er) and blow clockwise in the northern hemisphere out over the open ocean,” according to Buehner.

As a result, plastic and other debris floating at sea tend to get swept into the calm inner area of the North Pacific High, where the debris becomes trapped by oceanic and atmospheric forces and builds up at higher concentrations than surrounding waters. Over time, this has earned the area the nickname “garbage patch”—although the exact content, size, and location of the associated marine debris accumulations are still difficult to pin down.

Map of ocean currents, features, and areas of marine debris accumulation (including "garbage patches") in the Pacific Ocean.

This map is an oversimplification of ocean currents, features, and areas of marine debris accumulation (including “garbage patches”) in the Pacific Ocean. There are numerous factors that affect the location, size, and strength of all of these features throughout the year, including seasonality and El Nino/La Nina. (NOAA Marine Debris Program)

The Western Pacific Garbage Patch

On the opposite side of the Pacific Ocean, there is another so-called “garbage patch,” or area of marine debris buildup, off the southeast coast of Japan. This is the lesser known and studied, Western Pacific garbage patch. Southeast of the Kuroshio Extension (ocean current), researchers believe that this garbage patch is a small “recirculation gyre,” an area of clockwise-rotating water, much like an ocean eddy (Howell et al., 2012).

North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone

While not called a “garbage patch,” the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone is another place in the Pacific Ocean where researchers have documented concentrations of marine debris. A combination of oceanic and atmospheric forces create this convergence zone, which is positioned north of the Hawaiian Islands but moves seasonally and dips even farther south toward Hawaii during El Niño years (Morishige et al., 2007, Pichel et al., 2007). The North Pacific Convergence Zone is an area where many open-water marine species live, feed, or migrate and where debris has been known to accumulate (Young et al. 2009). Hawaii’s islands and atolls end up catching a notable amount of marine debris as a result of this zone dipping southward closer to the archipelago (Donohue et al. 2001, Pichel et al., 2007).

But the Pacific Ocean isn’t the only ocean with marine debris troubles. Trash from humans is found in every ocean, from the Arctic (Bergmann and Klages, 2012) to the Antarctic (Eriksson et al., 2013), and similar oceanic processes form high-concentration areas where debris gathers in the Atlantic Ocean and elsewhere.

You can help keep trash from becoming marine debris by (of course) reducing, reusing, and recycling; by downloading the NOAA Marine Debris Tracker app for your smartphone; and by learning more at http://marinedebris.noaa.gov.

Carey Morishige, Pacific Islands regional coordinator for the NOAA Marine Debris Program, also contributed to this post.

Literature Cited

Bergmann, M. and M. Klages. 2012. Increase of litter at the Arctic deep-sea observatory HAUSGARTEN. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 64: 2734-2741.

Donohue, M.J., R.C. Boland, C.M. Sramek, and G.A Antonelis. 2001. Derelict fishing gear in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands: diving surveys and debris removal in 1999 confirm threat to coral reef ecosystems. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 42 (12): 1301-1312.

Eriksson, C., H. Burton, S. Fitch, M. Schulz, and J. van den Hoff. 2013. Daily accumulation rates of marine debris on sub-Antarctic island beaches. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 66: 199-208.

Howell, E., S. Bograd, C. Morishige, M. Seki, and J. Polovina. 2012. On North Pacific circulation and associated marine debris concentration. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 65: 16-22.

Morishige, C., M. Donohue, E. Flint, C. Swenson, and C. Woolaway. 2007. Factors affecting marine debris deposition at French Frigate Shoals, Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument, 1990-2002. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 54: 1162-1169.

Pichel, W.G., J.H. Churnside, T.S. Veenstra, D.G. Foley, K.S. Friedman, R.E. Brainard, J.B. Nicoll, Q. Zheng and P. Clement-Colon. 2007. Marine debris collects within the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone [PDF]. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 54: 1207-1211.

Young L. C., C. Vanderlip, D. C. Duffy, V. Afanasyev, and S. A. Shaffer. 2009. Bringing home the trash: do colony-based differences in foraging distribution lead to increased plastic ingestion in Laysan albatrosses? PLoS ONE 4 (10).


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Japan Confirms Dock on Washington Coast Is Tsunami Marine Debris

A worker uses a 30% bleach spray to decontaminate the Japanese dock which made landfall on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula in December 2012.

January 3, 2013 — A worker uses a 30% bleach spray to decontaminate and reduce the spread of possible marine invasive species on the Japanese dock which made landfall on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula in December 2012. (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife/Allen Pleus)

The Japanese Consulate has confirmed that a 65-foot, concrete-and-foam dock that washed ashore in Washington’s Olympic National Park in late December 2012 is in fact one of three* docks from the fishing port of Misawa, Japan. These docks were swept out to sea during the earthquake and tsunami off of Japan in March 2011, and this is the second dock to be located. The first dock appeared on Agate Beach near Newport, Ore., in June 2012.

Using our trajectory forecast model, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration helped predict the approximate location of the dock after an initial sighting reported it to be floating somewhere off of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. When the dock finally came aground, it ended up both inside the bounds of NOAA’s Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary and a designated wilderness portion of Olympic National Park.

Japanese tsunami dock located on beach within Olympic National Park and National Marine Sanctuary.

In order to minimize damage to the coastline and marine habitat, federal agencies are moving forward with plans to remove the dock. In addition to being located within a designated wilderness portion of Olympic National Park, the dock is also within NOAA’s Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary and adjacent to the Washington Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex. (National Park Service)

According to the Washington State Department of Ecology, representatives from Olympic National Park, Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Washington Sea Grant Program have ventured out to the dock by land several times to examine, take samples, and clean the large structure.

Initial results from laboratory testing have identified 30-50 plant and animal species on the dock that are native to Japan but not the United States, including species of algae, seaweed, mussels, and barnacles.

In addition to scraping more than 400 pounds of organic material from the dock, the team washed its heavy side bumpers and the entire exterior structure with a diluted bleach solution to further decontaminate it, a method approved by the National Park Service and Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary.

Government representatives are examining possible options for removing the 185-ton dock from this remote and ecologically diverse coastal area.

Look for more information and updates on Japan tsunami marine debris at http://marinedebris.noaa.gov/tsunamidebris/.

*[UPDATE 4/5/2013: This story originally stated that four docks were missing from Misawa, Japan and that "the first dock was recovered shortly afterward on a nearby Japanese island." We now know only three docks were swept from Misawa in the 2011 tsunami and none of them were found on a Japanese island.]

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