Early summer fears that Cook Inlet and Kenai Peninsula beaches would see large amounts of floating Japanese debris from the March 2011 tsunami never quite materialized, said Patrick Chandler, special programs coordinator at the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies in Homer.
But what Chandler said did occur was a significant amount of Styrofoam and other items landing on catcher beaches throughout the Gulf of Alaska. That debris presents a unique logistical problem, further complicated by a lack of funding and dogged by a lack of media attention. The problem could get worse once debris is broken up and scattered by winter storms.
“The real concern now is next year because what has happened, regretfully, is that the push that we were hoping to do last summer when we realized how extensive the problem was, (was) never possible because there wasn’t the funding to do it,” said Chandler, who also serves as the International Coastal Cleanup state coordinator for Alaska. “... Instead of a few beaches really saturated with all sizes of Styrofoam, it is going to break up and really going to spread that Styrofoam across hundreds of miles coastline.
“I would not be surprised if we do see a substantial increase in foam next year even up into Cook Inlet.”
Summer CoastWalk program clean up efforts in Kachemak Bay did not result in a large amount of debris from the tsunami, Chandler said, but other beaches in the Diamond Creek and Anchor Point areas did see some. Chandler said he did not hear much of any tsunami debris collected on Central Kenai coastlines.
The bulk of the debris — mostly Styrofoam likely from Japanese construction projects and — landed in places like Gore Point, Montague Island, Kayak Island and Kamishak Bay.
“If it is a catcher beach or outer beach on the Gulf of Alaska it has received a good amount of debris,” he said.
Chandler, said state representatives and multiple groups concerned about marine debris will meet in December to talk about the problem and what options exist for clean up and disposal. That group will also look at which beaches would be the highest priority to clean next summer by using high-resolution aerial photography and video data gathered from Ketchikan to the Alaskan Peninsula.
“It is going to become an increasingly difficult problem to deal with and it is not as if it stopped arriving either,” Chandler said.
Chandler said estimates indicate a substantial clean up effort would cost about $150 million split between state, federal and other sources per year for five years, which he said is “not that much when you are cleaning up a disaster like this.”
But little to no funding sources currently exist, Chandler said.
“When you are looking at the cost and logistics of cleaning a place like Montague Island it is pretty substantial,” he said. “You are talking in the millions of dollars. The frustration is this is likely to have a substantial ecosystem impact and when you look at that and you look at how widespread this problem is and what we do for similar environmental situations and other types of spills the amount of money we would need for this is very small.”
Among the environmental concerns raised would be if birds or other small animals were to start ingesting the small chunks of debris, Chandler said.
“Why I’m not citing more specific examples ... is because the science really hasn’t caught up with the problem yet, and it is unlikely it will in this event,” he said. “This is something that we are going to need to deal with in a pretty immediate sense if we are going to have a significant impact and the studies that need to be done on the effects of Styrofoam on this large of a scale just haven’t happened.”
Furthering the problem is a lack of media coverage, Chandler said. Tsunami debris was “completely dropped” after its initial shock value was reported and after officials determined it was not radioactive.
“That was incredibly frustrating to me,” he said. “The interesting thing is that I have Japanese reporters calling for monthly updates.”
Chandler said if coastal residents still would like to help, they can continue to walk the beaches they know best, monitoring changes and keeping an eye out for Styrofoam.
“I’m incredibly curious to see as the winter moves on,” Chandler said. “I think I heard reports of 25 foot seas last weekend — things like that are going to shift that pocket of debris around, especially as that foam breaks up.”
Brian Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.