Tsunami debris encroaching on Cook Inlet, volunteers needed

This large Styrofoam float found on March 17 on the beach near Diamond Creek could be Japanese tsunami debris.

The question isn't if debris dislodged by last year's Japanese tsunami will reach the central Kenai Peninsula's shores or not.


It's when and how much, said Patrick Chandler, special programs coordinator at the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies in Homer.

That debris, some of which is suspected to have started washing up on southern Alaska shores already, will likely reach into Cook Inlet and might make it as far north as Kenai and Nikiski, Chandler said.

"The currents coming up the Cook Inlet will definitely bring some of this stuff up from the Gulf of Alaska into this area," he said. "Where you are really going to see it is any beaches that are already catcher beaches. But, there are not that many up in your area."

Predicting the volume, timing and nature of debris landing on local shores will be tricky, Chandler said. Groups tracking the situation, such as National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies, will rely heavily on the eyes of volunteers and beach walkers who can help identify, report and catalogue the debris' arrival, he added. Such information gathered from beach communities is important, he said.

"There are a lot of people I know that just go out and pick up beaches that they walk regularly, but as we are figuring out this tsunami debris, it is going to be very helpful to get a better idea of what those people are finding," he said.

According to information from NOAA, the Japanese government estimates about 5 million tons of debris were swept into the ocean as a result of the March 2011 tsunami. About 70 percent of that debris sank offshore, officials said, leaving about 1.5 million tons with no real estimate as to how much of that figure is still floating more than a year later.

Officials said the debris field has dissipated -- no longer visible from satellites -- and researchers are working on mapping efforts to better understand the path it might take. Scientists contend it is "highly unlikely" the debris will be radioactive, NOAA reported.

So far, two Styrofoam buoys have been found in the Homer area, the first of which was discovered and photographed by Homer News staff writer Michael Armstrong near the Diamond Creek beach near Bluff Point on Saint Patrick's Day.

The buoy is 36 inches long with a 20-inch diameter and could be from a Japanese oyster farm, Armstrong reported. He also found a similar buoy on the Homer Spit earlier this week, which has yet to be recovered, he said.

"We're suspicious they are tsunami debris that got here due to a lot of wind in the last year," Chandler said. "They are high-windage items that will sit up high in the water. If we start finding more and more, that will confirm it."

Chandler, who also serves as the International Coastal Cleanup state coordinator for Alaska, encouraged residents who wanted to keep an eye on beach debris to do so.

"Some of our best eyes out there are going to be people who know their beaches well," he said. "People who can walk down to a beach, look around and say, 'This is how it usually looks,' or, 'Oh, there's a lot more stuff here than usual.'"

If something out of the ordinary is found, Chandler said the person should document the find by getting its GPS coordinates, taking lots of photos, typing up a brief report of the suspected debris and emailing those to NOAA at disasterdebris@noaa.org.

What to do next is really up to common sense, Chandler said.

"If it looks like it is something safe to pick up and you don't mind picking up, like a giant Styrofoam buoy, then yeah, take it off the beach so it doesn't float out again," he said. "If it looks like something that's a little sketchy, like a 50-gallon drum leaking something, then maybe you don't pick it up and just report it."

However, Chandler said residents might consider saving the item for another CACS project being funded by a grant from the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council -- keeping all the debris found during clean-ups this summer for large-scale sculptures and art projects.

"Pick it up and make sure it goes to an appropriate source," he said. "Our volunteers will definitely take what they are getting."

Chandler stressed coastal debris isn't anything new to the area. Volunteers for decades have worked to clear up recreational debris in urban areas of Alaska and all kinds of debris in remote areas most commonly from fishing -- derelict nets, crab pots, rope and lines.

"Although this Japan tsunami debris was caused by a natural disaster and is a huge tragedy, it didn't cause all the stuff that is on our beaches and we've been getting debris for years and years here from Japan, other places in the world and from recreational debris," he said. "We should use the awareness this tsunami debris has brought to the problem that most debris is created by human choice and not natural disaster. That is something that is impacting our beaches and our oceans every year."

He recalled a recent clean up of Gore Point on the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula that netted more than 20 tons of debris.

"That's not taking it all, that's just taking it in the time that we have," he said.

Last year during volunteer clean ups in Kachemak Bay, volunteers cleared 7,000 pounds of debris -- none of which was from the tsunami.

"When you look at that and consider that we are expecting quite a bit (from the tsunami) to come on through, that helps to give a scale to it," he said. "We are talking about thousands of pounds. And in some places, multiple tons."

Brian Smith can be reached at brian.smith@peninsulaclarion.com.
Homer News staff writer Michael Armstrong contributed to this report.

Where to report tsunami debris:

• Hazardous debris at sea: U.S. Coast Guard, Sector Anchorage — 271-6769

• Human remains — Alaska State Troopers, 262-4453

• Cultural items — NOAA, DisasterDebris@noaa.org

• Other debris — Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies, 235-6667 or info@akcoastalstudies.org

— For more information, visit NOAA's Marine Debris website at marinedebris.noaa.gov/info/japanfaqs.html

— Contact Patrick Chandler at patrick@akcoastalstudies.org for help organizing beach cleanup efforts.


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