What will debris from Japan’s March 2011 tsunami mean for the Pacific coast of the U.S and the U.S. maritime industry?

Earlier this month, the Coast Guard sank a 164-foot Japanese shrimping vessel, the Ryou-Un Maru, in the Gulf of Alaska about 195 miles south of Sitka after the vessel drifted for over a year across the Pacific Ocean. The vessel was dislodged in Hokkaido due to the March 2011 tsunami. Federal marine and environmental officials decided that sinking the ship, which had no power, lights or communication equipment, would be better than having it collide with another ship or run aground along the coast. “It’s safer to mitigate the risks now before there’s an accident or environmental impact,” said Coast Guard spokesman Petty Officer Charley Hengen.

The Ryou-Un Maru, dubbed the “Ghost Ship,” marks the beginning of what is likely to be a substantial amount of debris from the Tsunami reaching the west coast of North America. The Japanese government estimated that the tsunami swept about 5 million tons of debris into the ocean, but that 70 percent sank off shore, leaving 1.5 million tons floating. There no estimate of how much debris is still floating today. Many variables affect where the debris will go and when. Items will sink, disperse, and break up along the way, and winds and ocean currents constantly change, making it very difficult to predict an exact date and location for the debris’ arrival on our shores. A new NOAA modeling effort shows that some buoyant items may have reached the Pacific Northwest coast during winter 2011-2012. The bulk of the debris is likely still dispersed north of the Main Hawaiian Islands and east of Midway Atoll. Scientific forecasting models are only sophisticated guesses, so estimates vary as to debris arrival times, locations, and quantities.

What is clear, however, is that eventually our coast will be hit with some amount of debris from the Tsunami. As we move forward, some plan of action will need to be put in place to address the environmental impact on our shores and potential navigational hazards imposed by the debris.

Senators Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Mark Begich, D-Alaska, have said that tsunami debris spotted off islands in the Gulf of Alaska is a “wake up call” that the federal government must immediately work out an action plan to spot and predict what is coming and give coastal towns time to react. Pilots are reporting floats, buoys, insulation and plastics in the vicinity of Montague and Kayak Islands at opposite ends of the entrance to Prince William Sound. “We know the tsunami debris is on its way to our coast,” said Cantwell. “We cannot be caught by surprise: We need clear answers and the best science available to protect Washington’s billion-dollar coastal economy.” Senator Begich said, “I urge the Obama Administration to respond to our request from several weeks ago to free up funds and resources so we can effectively deal with debris and not be scrambling when this arrives.” Cantwell and Begich want the National Science Foundation to give instructions on tracking debris crossing the ocean from Japan’s March 2011 quake and tidal wave. Cantwell has asked the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) also to work with towns along the Washington and Oregon coasts, which are home to fishing fleets, refineries, working ports and recreation.