Skip to main content

Flotsam from 2011 Japan tsunami reaches Alaska

From Casey Wian, CNN
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Wed May 23, 2012
It's been more than a year since a massive quake devastated northeast Japan, and the debris believed to be from that disaster is now washing up more than 4,000 miles away in Alaska. The Styrofoam that's washing up breaks into little pieces and the wildlife, thinking it is food, will eat it -- causing a negative chain reaction. "The little fish are going to eat some of this stuff and not get the nutrition they need," explained Bill Lucey of the Yakutat Salmon Board. "So they're not going to grow that fast, so they're either going to die or get eaten by predators more readily or they just won't be able to compete in the natural world as well." It's been more than a year since a massive quake devastated northeast Japan, and the debris believed to be from that disaster is now washing up more than 4,000 miles away in Alaska. The Styrofoam that's washing up breaks into little pieces and the wildlife, thinking it is food, will eat it -- causing a negative chain reaction. "The little fish are going to eat some of this stuff and not get the nutrition they need," explained Bill Lucey of the Yakutat Salmon Board. "So they're not going to grow that fast, so they're either going to die or get eaten by predators more readily or they just won't be able to compete in the natural world as well."
HIDE CAPTION
Japan tsunami debris reaches Alaska
Japan tsunami debris reaches Alaska
Japan tsunami debris reaches Alaska
Japan tsunami debris reaches Alaska
Japan tsunami debris reaches Alaska
Japan tsunami debris reaches Alaska
Japan tsunami debris reaches Alaska
Japan tsunami debris reaches Alaska
Japan tsunami debris reaches Alaska
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "If you walk up and down this beach, you'll see big chunks," Alaska man says
  • NOAA says it doesn't have the budget to clean remote areas
  • Tsunami debris could be washing ashore for a year, NOAA says

Yakutat, Alaska (CNN) -- Residents of towns in the Alaska Panhandle have begun picking up plastic bottles, chunks of foam insulation and floating buoys from Japan's 2011 tsunami.

"This is urethane spray building foam," Chris Pallister, president of the conservation group Gulf of Alaska Keeper, said as he picked through trash on Montague Island, about 200 miles north of Juneau. "We just never got much of that before. But if you walk up and down this beach, you see big chunks."

Hi-res photo gallery: Japan tsunami debris reaches Alaska

The foam comes from the walls of buildings that were smashed to splinters by the wall of water that slammed into Japan's northeastern coast after the March 2011 earthquake that left nearly 16,000 known dead. The wreckage was swept out to sea when the wave receded and has drifted 4,000 miles across the northern Pacific in the 14 months since then.

Japanese man claims motorcycle that washed up in Canada

Volunteers like Pallister have been trekking out to remote areas like Montague Island to help clean up the beaches. But they're worried they'll be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of wreckage -- estimated at 1.5 million tons -- believed to be headed toward North American shores.

First wave of tsunami debris hits U.S.
Island of garbage pollutes Pacific Ocean

Japanese officials estimate up to 70% of the tsunami wreckage has sunk. But the rest, ranging in size from children's toys to a squid trawler sunk by the U.S. Coast Guard off Alaska in April, has been turning up off the United States and Canada for more than a month.

Soccer ball washed up in Alaska traced to tsunami-hit area of Japan

It's the little pieces of Styrofoam that worry conservationists like Pallister, who says there may be billions of them out there.

"Albatross and sea birds eat this stuff like crazy, and it's killing the hell out of them," he said.

Alaskans have been asking for help from the federal government. But the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration said last week it doesn't have the budget to clean up remote areas. NOAA's marine debris program is facing a 25% cut under the budget the Obama administration has submitted to Congress -- so the cleanup may become the problem of cash-strapped states, already struggling to make ends meet.

Research ship finds the world's oceans are 'plasticized'

At a Senate hearing last week, the head of NOAA's Ocean Service, David Kennedy, said the bulk of the debris wasn't expected to hit until 2013. But he said it was "incredibly expensive" to clean up.

"You got to have ships to get out there," Kennedy said. "You got to have people, then you got to have some place to do away with it ... We can't begin to touch, especially in remote areas, if there is substantial new amounts of debris, what's going to be required to remove it."

Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, the chairman of the Senate Commerce subcommittee that held the hearing, said NOAA's position was "somewhat frustrating."

"The role of the federal government in emergencies is to assist states, not just say, 'It's your responsibility, good luck,' because that's not acceptable," Begich, a Democrat, told Kennedy.

Have you encountered any debris from the tsunami? Share your photos and videos on CNN iReport!

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT