• Trail of ‘this and that’ keeps popping up on Kachemak Bay shores
By Naomi Klouda
The problem with marine trash is the tragedy it causes marine life when a bird plucks a morsel that is actually styrofoam, or when a seal gets strangled by fishing nets.
If there’s a good side to the massive patch of Japanese tsunami debris en route to Alaska, it’s the awareness brought to the problem. People will meet the trash on the beach, and clean it up before it can trap unsuspecting animals.
Homer beach monitors have been at it for a few months now, eyeing the tidelines and removing garbage, said Patrick Chandler, the special programs coordinator at the Alaska Center for Coastal Studies.
“We’ve been monitoring beaches for 28 years in Kachemak Bay. We’ve got a pretty good idea of what’s coming up and what has come up,” Chandler said.
“The entire tsunami debris problem is a difficult issue. The reason is because we’ve been getting Asian debris in Alaska for many, many years. We know because of the ship that made it over here, we know that high windage items – buoys that float high that get a lot of wind to get that push – are coming.”
Japanese floats were found at Nanwalek. Last week, Hallo Bay Bear Camp pilots flying between Homer and Katmai came upon large yellow buoys. Kachemak Bay also has seen scattered buoys, with a possible range all the way down the Kenai Peninsula, according to NOAA estimates.
NOAA sightings have confirmed that debris is not in fields or islands, but scattered over a large area of the North Pacific.
The problem is the difficulty in confirming whatever comes ashore was washed loose from the massive spread of trash, he said. The tsunami struck in March 2010, with the potential for years of strewn trash carried on currents. Much of it likely sank.
The government of Japan estimates that the tsunami swept roughly 5 million tons of debris into the Pacific Ocean. Of this 5 million tons, they estimate that roughly 70 percent sank near shore, leaving 30 percent or roughly 1.6-1.7 million tons of debris floating off the coast. That aligns with previous NOAA data and experience from similar events that shows that the majority of heavier debris is likely to sink in the nairnshire area. Floating items, including boats that pose navigation hazards, are left to be carried on currents.
“What I can say is over the past few weeks we’re finding uncommon buoys – big white styrofoam buoys. We know they are of Japanese origin,” Chandler said.
“The rate it’s moving, how much, where it is right now – these are things no one can say for certain,” he added. “We don’t know how much will strike further south or directly this way but it’s definitely on its way. The modeling they’ve done has predicted it will hit most in 2013. But in the meantime, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more high windage items.”
What to do if you find a suspected tsunami discard?
It depends on the item and where it is.
“Those are two big variables. Styrofoam should be removed to keep ecosystems intact, and especially nets. Buoys break down and look like food items for surface feeding birds and ocean mammals, then – they suffer the consequences,” Chandler said.
If it makes sense, if its practical, it should be picked up.
“Use common sense with whatever you find. If it looks like you shouldn’t mess with it, like a 50-gallon drum, you don’t want to take it upon yourself to haul it off,” he added.
It will help if people report their findings to NOAA. Take the GPS coordinates at a site. Take pictures of the debris and give a brief description. This is being accepted at disasterdebris@NOAA.gov.
NOAA wants to get a good idea of what’s coming and where.
Officials are not worried about radioactivity. “It is incredibly unlikely that anything would be radioactivity. It was all dispersed before the (nuclear) reactor was melted down,” Chandler said.
The Center for Alaska Coastal Studies raises awareness about the hazards of plastic and other garbage dumped on the ocean. Each year, they conduct a beach cleanup and then offer awards for sculptures made of debris. But, the tsunami dispersal offers an even bigger chance to get the message out.
“This was definitely a tragedy. It was a catastrophic act of nature. But marine debris has been around, and it will be around for along time. Most isn’t caused by acts of nature,” Chandler said. “It’s caused by human choices. Most of it is recreational debris.”
The tsunami event provides an opportunity to shed light on an activity that affects all the oceans of the world.
The Center for Alaska Coastal Studies is planning events to help turn the spotlight on this environmental catastrophe. They are hoping to have exhibit pieces and information on the Homer Spit and other beaches to illustrate the range of garbage washing ashore. These sculptures will be built of 100 percent trash.
“This way, they will get a better profile of what we are finding and how much there is in beautiful and horrifying large-scale art,” he said.
The center still needs volunteers. If people are interested in beach monitoring or participating in any of this issue, call 235-6667 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In addition to his role at the Center for Coastal
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