Tsunami debris threatens NW Jobs and Wildlife

An entire crew of ocean workers lifts a net full of debris estimated to weigh over a ton. Photo courtesy of John B. Davis

By Joshua Kinne ’13

Ocean debris is an ongoing problem for marine life around the world. Debris from the Japanese tsunami in March is amplifying the problem and is headed toward the Northwest.

By 2014, an incalculable amount of debris will arrive near Washington State.

Sen. Maria Cantwell says that the debris is a threat to jobs and economic security in Washington State. She urged the Senate to help fund tsunami debris cleanup.

Debris will wash up on the coast and potentially damage marine life and fish valuable to jobs and food. Cleaning up debris before it arrives in the Northwest isn’t a straightforward process.

Current efforts to clean debris are small, and dealing with the tsunami debris is creating even more problems for those involved in the cleanup process.

Damage to ocean wildlife

Andrea Neal PhD. is the president and founder of Blue Ocean Sciences, a group devoted to the clean up of marine debris in oceans throughout the world. For over 13 years Neal has been involved in both scientific research and environmental campaigns to clean the ocean of marine debris.

“Worst case scenario, there is a large amount of debris that is highly toxic including radioactively. That could impact fisheries, making fish dangerous to consume,” she said. “If the debris is toxic enough, it could be dangerous for workers to even clean it up, making cleanup more difficult.”

Chemicals and plastic particles are the debris most dangerous to fish and ocean wildlife. Neal says that ocean debris, not including debris from the tsunami, has already been linked to cancer in Northwest native Orca Whale populations.

Fish also consume small particles of plastic, mistaking them for food. This plastic makes its way up the food chain to large marine predators like the Orca Whale. Northwest waters are home to many species of marine wildlife that  are affected by marine debris.

Salmon and other fish markets in the Northwest could be affected by tsunami debris if it gets into fish populations making them dangerous to consume.

Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell recently urged the Senate to help protect Washington Coastal jobs from the effects of marine debris. Cantwell urged the Senate to create a response plan to address the growing threat of marine debris in Washington.

“We think multibillion dollar industries like fishing, the ecosystem, shipping and transportation could be affected by this,” Cantwell said. “We in Washington depend on our waterways for a great deal of our commerce.”


The kind of debris potentially on its way across the Pacific Ocean. Photo courtesy of Shawn Alladio.

Scientists and activists have been working for years to rid oceans of toxic marine debris.

Groups like NOAA and Andrea Neal’s Blue Ocean Science have been heavily involved in marine debris cleanup. But, even without tsunami debris from Japan, expeditions to clean debris have difficult to fund.

Maria Cantwell’s plea to the Senate was successful, in part.

“From her efforts, funds have been allocated to NOAA to be given to other organizations,” said Neal. “Those funds have not been allocated yet, and it’s a long lengthy process.”

Neal says that government funds can take up to a year to be allocated to groups, so they often rely on donations and private funding.

Regardless of funding, efforts are underway to start cleaning tsunami debris now.

Groups like NOAA and Blue Ocean Science are working together, developing a plan to tackle the threat of tsunami debris throughout the Pacific Ocean. There are also groups on the land, preparing to address debris as it washes up on the coast.

However, the cleanup effort has yet to begin. Little is known about the tsunami debris. Estimates put the size of the debris anywhere from 26-200 million tons. Very little is known about debris toxicity and types of debris.

Small plastics and chemicals are difficult to clean. Small plastic particles are big enough for fish to consume, but too small for nets and other standard items used in cleaning marine debris.

Chemicals can be dangerous to marine life and those cleaning it. If some objects are radioactive, this makes it even more difficult to clean because of the danger to those cleaning it.

Neal and Sen. Cantwell both agree that something needs to be done quickly. Tsunami debris is expected to begin arriving on the Washington coast in 2014.

But, Neal says that people shouldn’t worry excessively about this problem. The debris is being monitored, and wildlife and fish are heavily monitored by the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the fishing industry.

For those concerned, there is a web seminar Monday, Dec. 12 where groups, scientists, and activists involved in debris cleanup will address questions and concerns from the general public about marine debris in the Pacific Ocean.

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