Tsunami Debris Washes Ashore On Wash. Shores

Debris from the tsunami that hit Japan last March is just now starting to show up on the far northwestern shores of the U.S. Some fishermen are worried the floats and other rubble may tangle their nets and affect their livelihood. Ashley Ahearn of the public media collaboration EarthFix headed out to Washington State's Olympic Peninsula to see what's coming ashore.

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Wreckage from the tsunami that struck Japan last March is slowly making its way across the Pacific Ocean. The Japanese government estimated that up to 25 million tons of debris from the wave washed into the ocean. Now it's beginning to make landfall along U.S. coasts.

From the public media collaboration EarthFix, Ashley Ahearn reports.

ASHLEY AHEARN, BYLINE: John Anderson is standing in his front yard in Forks, Washington. Behind him is a 40-foot tall tower made entirely of buoys from crab pots. The yard around him is filled with bits of flotsam and jetsam that he's scoured from northwest beaches over the past 35 years.

JOHN ANDERSON: I have a museum here that has just about everything that ever came in on the beach in there, and most people call it garbage, trash. And I call it treasure.

AHEARN: In his sandy wanderings, Anderson has found a two-and-a-half-million-year-old mammoth tooth, bits of space shuttles and shipwrecks - even rubber chickens.

But after a storm at the end of November, he noticed something different.

(SOUNDBITE OF A ROLLING FLOAT)

AHEARN: Anderson's dragging a round black float across his driveway. It's about three and a half feet long. He's seen floats like this before and believes this one is from a Japanese oyster farm in the area where the tsunami hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF A ROLLING FLOAT)

ANDERSON: This end has the - still has the oyster from the oyster farm on it.

AHEARN: So how many have you found total?

ANDERSON: Two of these and five of the big white ones; they're all from the tsunami, probably that one operation.

AHEARN: These floats sit high in the water, which made them travel faster across the surface of the Pacific, pushed by wind as well as currents. People have reported seeing them from Oregon to British Columbia and Alaska. The slower-moving Japanese debris should start to hit the northwest Hawaiian Islands soon and the West Coast of the U.S. later this year.

It raises both economic and safety concerns, but radioactivity is not among them. Peter Murphy is with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Marine Debris program.

PETER MURPHY: The consensus is that the debris being radioactive is highly unlikely. This is based on several factors.

AHEARN: Factor one: The nuclear meltdown occurred after the tsunami washed the debris away from the coast.

Factor two: The tsunami hit a massive amount of coastline, most of which was not close to the reactor.

And factor three: Cargo ships coming in from the area show no elevated radioactivity.

But Murphy says there's still cause for concern. Debris can smother habitat and tangle up marine life.

MURPHY: We're looking towards understanding better how much debris and how much of a problem it's going to add, and whether it's going to be different impacts.

(SOUNDBITE OF WIND AND OCEAN WAVES)

DANA SARFF: Looks like the tide is in.

AHEARN: It's a gray windy day on the Olympic Peninsula, as Dana Sarff and Billy Noel walk through the woods and down to a beach on the Makah Indian Reservation. The Makah lands are located at the far northwestern tip.

SARFF: This is the beginning of the world. The blacktop starts here and it moves east.

AHEARN: Billy Noel is a member of the Makah Tribe and works for the tribal fisheries department. Dana Sarff is the Sustainable Resources Coordinator for the tribe.

SARFF: Where did you find the debris, Billy? Was it down that way?

BILLY NOEL: Yeah.

AHEARN: Late last year, Noel found the same black floats John Anderson has in his yard.

NOEL: Don't look right. Lo and behold, it's stuff we're not familiar with.

AHEARN: The Makah are an ocean people. For hundreds of years they have made seaworthy canoes for whaling and fishing in these coastal waters. Today, they have the largest tribal fishing fleet in the U.S.

Dana Sarff says the tsunami debris could hurt the tribe's livelihood.

SARFF: Debris on the water and the water columns could definitely affect the commercial fishery here, radioactive or not. And we don't really know what to expect.

AHEARN: For instance, it could damage fishing nets and clog ship engines. The Makah are working with government agencies to create a response plan.

For NPR News, I'm Ashley Ahearn in Seattle.

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