Tsunami 'Ghost Ship' Crosses Pacific

After one year and thousands of miles, a Japanese fishing boat has made its way across the Pacific — with no one on board. The rusty ship was apparently sent adrift during the Japanese tsunami. Nancy Wallace, director of the Marine Debris Program with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, discusses the "ghost ship."

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It's traveled thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean over the last year and now a Japanese fishing vessel that was swept out to sea during the tsunami has been spotted off the coast of British Columbia. It's rusted and drifting and apparently empty. And at more than 150,000 feet long, it's the largest object from the tsunami by far to reach the waters off North America.

Nancy Wallace is keeping a careful eye on that debris. She's director of the Marine Debris Program for NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and she joins us now. Nancy, welcome to the program.

NANCY WALLACE: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: Let's talk first about that squid fishing vessel. What have you been able to find out about it? What kind of shape is it in?

WALLACE: Well, from what we can see in the pictures that we've seen, it's actually in pretty good shape. It's still fairly above the water line and seems to be moving forward, so surprisingly. Considering it's traveled so far, it still looks to be in pretty good shape.

BLOCK: And how far off the Canadian coast is it?

WALLACE: We've received word overnight that it's about 85 nautical miles off of the Queen Charlotte Islands.

BLOCK: And is it headed straight for shore?

WALLACE: No, not necessarily. It's adrift right now, so really depends a lot on the wind and currents. So, we don't think it's actually going to make landfall anytime soon.

BLOCK: Well, what happens with a vessel like this that's abandoned out at sea, nobody on it? Do you try to get the owner? What happens?

WALLACE: Well, the Canadian Coast Guard is in charge of the situation because it is in Canadian waters. They have reached out to the owner in Japan. The Japanese government was able to track down the owner and identify where the ship came from and also confirmed that they don't believe anybody was onboard.

BLOCK: So, what happens with the vessel itself?

WALLACE: Well, that will be up to the Coast Guard. I think there are some options there in terms of either, you know, being able to bring it into shore through a tugboat or actually even considering - sometimes, those vessels are scuttled at sea, so they're actually sunk to make sure that there isn't any impact on land.

BLOCK: Uh-huh. Now, would you be worried about a pollution hazard, maybe fuel leaks?

WALLACE: Yes. That is absolutely something to consider and that's - again, the Coast Guard is looking into that to determine if there is fuel onboard and, of course, that would be addressed before any decision is made about what to do with the vessel.

BLOCK: There were tons of debris that were swept away in the tsunami last year. You're director of the Marine Debris Program, is this something that you've been kind of tracking, wondering what's going to be washing ashore and when?

WALLACE: Absolutely. This is something that we have been engaged with since the beginning. Of course, you know, this is, first and foremost, a human tragedy. But pretty quickly, we started to think about the amount of debris that went into the water. So we reached out to the commercial shipping industry, to the fishing industry, and said, look out for debris. Let us know what you're seeing.

After the event and for a few weeks, you could actually see a debris field by satellite, but then it broke up so much or sunk that it wasn't visible anymore by satellites. So we've been, you know, doing a lot through observations and then also looking in terms of modeling. And we did some initial models that forecast where the debris could go.

It's been a year since the event and we actually have real data now. You know, we had forecasts with historical data before, but now we have actual wind and current data that we can put into the models. And what we're seeing is actually an anticipated timeline of when that debris could arrive on our coastlines.

BLOCK: When you use the models that you've put together, would you expect to be seeing a whole lot of debris from the tsunami arriving on North American shores all at once? Will it be coming in slowly, over time?

WALLACE: We actually think it'll be coming in slowly, over time because debris is made up of different things. So, things that sit out of the water or have, like, a high sail area are going to be more influenced by wind. And so, those may move quicker and arrive more quickly along the West Coast or Alaska.

But we also have things in the water that are probably half submerged or totally submerged that are going to move a lot slower. So we think that the influx of debris will be scattered over time. And it also probably will be scattered over geographic location. So there probably won't be a big influx of debris all in one place at one time, but it'll come in more slowly and spread out.

BLOCK: Nancy Wallace, thanks for talking to us.

WALLACE: OK. Thanks very much.

BLOCK: Nancy Wallace is director of the Marine Debris Program for NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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