Tsunami Debris Threatens Marine Life, State Budgets

When a 66-foot long dock landed on an Oregon beach this summer, scientists and environmentalists were alarmed. The nearly 5,000-mile voyage the dock made, in-tact, was impressive. But more impressive, and more alarming, is what lived on that dock.

There are two docks, and about 1.5 million tons of debris, still afloat in the Pacific.

The tsunami pushed four floating docks from the port of Misawa into the Pacific Ocean. The Japanese were able to reel in one dock, another landed on a sandy Oregon beach back in June, and two docks are not yet accounted for.

The missing docks, and what lives on those docks, have long worried scientists.

Marine Advisory Agent and University of Alaska-Fairbanks Associate Professor Gary Freitag studies invasive marine species.  Invasive species clinging to debris like the Harley Davidson that landed in British Columbia, or the soccer ball found on Alaska’s coast, isn’t what worries him. Freitag is concerned about what’s on larger structures like the docks.

“The reason it was so damaging is it formed its own ecosystem,” said Freitag. “It had plants, it had animals, it had everything available. It managed to survive coming across the ocean. Something on a buoy, the chances are, most of the organisms won’t survive because it doesn’t have a whole ecosystem to depend upon.”

The dock that landed on Oregon’s cost carried dozens of invasive species. Since there’s 1.5 million tons of tsunami debris still afloat in the Pacific, the threat of invasive species landing on Alaska’s shores is real.

Consider the environment of our own harbors.

“If you go down to the docks here and look at our floats, and all the stuff growing on our floats… those are the kinds of things that if they could transport across the ocean, they could sustain populations, and eventually, spread invasive species,” Freitag said. “And that’s why were worried about them.”

Of immediate threat is a brown algae (Undaria Pinnatifida), commonly known as wakame. It’s an edible seaweed cultivated in Japan, and you’ve probably tried it in sushi, seaweed salads or even miso soup. Undaria is an aggressive plant, having earned a nomination as one of the world’s 100 worst invasive species.

Undaria can interfere with and replace the native algaes that grow in an area. And since it’s not typically in the diets of marine organisms that live in that area…well, they’ve lost their food source. Undaria has already been found on the coast of California, Oregon and Washington. The dock that landed in Oregon was covered in it. Fortunately, it landed on a sandy, smooth beach which prevented algae colonization. But what if a dock landed on Alaska’s rocky, expansive coastline?

“If it gets into our bays here [in Alaska], it’s going to have the exact kind of habitat that it would desire to grow and expand,” said Freitag. “And we have a coastline that there’s no way we’re going to prevent it. So it’s going to happen.”

Freitag says it’s not a matter of if, but when we’ll see Undaria in Alaska.

“I think we’re not going to avoid this problem,” he commented. “I think it’s going to happen. Whether or not it interferes with our resources is another story. But I think we’ll have a new species in this area shortly when this stuff shows up. Coastline is way too big here, it’s exactly the type of place it can live, with rocky hard substrates.”

And now, federal lawmakers are voicing concerns. Earlier this month a group of Northwest representatives introduced the “Marine Debris Emergency Act.” The act is supposed to help coastal communities secure federal funding in an emergency scenario. While the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration already provided grants for marine debris removal, the act would expedite assistance.

Back in July, NOAA announced it would provide funding to Northwest coastal states, including Alaska, to help with tsunami debris removal.

“NOAA has presented us with a grant opportunity for $50,000 the state of Alaska.,” said Elaine Busse Floyd, Administrative Operations Manager at Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. “We applied for the grant, we don’t yet have word back from NOAA if we’re going to receive that money or not. We’re optimistic that we will. But here it is, nearly the end of August and we don’t have that money yet.”

The DEC has contracted with an agency to do an aerial survey of debris on 2,500 miles of Alaska’s coastlines. The survey already has cost the state $200,000.

Meanwhile, Freitag is working with coastal states and other agencies to form a consistent, unified message on how to handle debris that does come ashore. Freitag said that if salvageable debris is found, the item should be cleaned with care to prevent the spread of invasive marine life. He cites beachcombers who scrape algae off debris and discard it back into the ocean as the most common problem.

“So we want to get a consistent message out there,” stated Freitag. “Large things, we don’t just want people to just haul them and scrape them loose, and put them in their showroom, saying‘here’s tsunami debris.’ Some of the debris they’ve been finding in the Oregon coast is now on eBay, for example, being sold – it’s that kind of thing. And people are just scraping this stuff off into the ocean. They don’t want the smelly stuff that’s going to rot and smell. They want to get rid of that. They scrape it all off and then it gets distributed into the ocean.”

While you probably won’t see either of the unaccounted for docks on eBay any time soon, encountering tsunami debris on Southeast Alaska’s coast is a real possibility.

“I believe that we’re going to be facing marine debris on our shores for several more years,” said Floyd.

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