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Things you'll find from the Japanese tsunami on NW beaches

If you visit a Northwest ocean beach this summer, you’ll likely run across objects from last year’s Japanese tsunami.

The things you’ll likely see include milk jugs, detergent bottles, tooth brushes and bottles for water, pop or juices with Japanese stamps, marks and labels. Perhaps a soccer ball or a volleyball -- two that washed up on an Alaskan island have beenclaimed by their Japanese owners.

The things you are highly unlikely to see are human remains, refrigerators or anything else that would have to be sealed to float or can come apart, like bigger parts of houses. Months on the ocean will breakup anything with parts, experts say.

“I have no doubt that we saw something that was from Japan,” said Evan Escamilla, a cleanup organizer for Washington Coastsavers, whose members hit the beaches this past weekend on a cleaning spree. “A lot of general fishing gear. Some floats, some lighters that had Japanese writing on them. Floats, gas cans and things like that.”

Crews out in bigger numbers

Escamilla added that the number of volunteers that hit the beaches this year was up.

“This year is our best year yet! Over 1,320 people have reported already. I’m expecting more than 100 people to check in later on. We’ve seen a big increase in volunteers, and certainly interest from the media about the tsunami debris” was a factor.

The bulk of the debris is likely still dispersed north of the Main Hawaiian Islands and east of Midway Atoll, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrationreported on its Website. The model below (which you can expand and move around inside the window with your mouse) shows where debris may be now.

The journey across the ocean

Millions of tons of debris were lost to the sea after the tsunami devastated coastal Japan, and the question has been, How much of it could wash up on our beaches?

“A majority of the debris that was created during the tsunami events, approximately 25 million metric tons, will not come to our coast,” says Andrea Neal, president of Blue Ocean Sciences, a group devoted to cleaning marine debris and ocean education. “They’re predicting only about 5 million of it is buoyant.”

So, only 5 million metric tons of debris could potentially make it to Washington, but 5 million metric tons of what? Neal says anything could potentially wash ashore, but some things have a higher chance of making the long trip from Japan.

Small Particles

The ocean is ruthless, and objects break apart easily. As objects make their way across the ocean, Neal says they degrade into smaller pieces. Plastics are not biodegradable and easily break into smaller pieces, however they never disappear. Small plastics can float in the ocean for years, and Neal says they are a common sight on shores.

Household items

Many iconic images from the tsunami depicted entire houses falling into the ocean. Neal says it’s extremely unlikely that anything the size of a house could make it all the way to Washington beaches, but some of the objects inside can capture air and float for long periods. Items like milk jugs, detergent bottles and tooth brushes are just a few of the familiar things beach goers may encounter.

Coastal industry items

Fishing and coastal items were some of the biggest objects pulled into the ocean by the tsunami. Neal says that anything from entire fishing vessels to nets and buoys could make an appearance on our beaches in the future.


There hasn’t been a whole lot of research into the chemical component of the tsunami debris.

“They [researchers] are making efforts to look at the debris as it comes into the northwest Hawaiian Islands,” says Neal. “But, to be honest that’s not something anyone knows at this point.”

However, she says there is definitely a potential for contamination. Hazards like industrial waste, agricultural chemicals, household chemicals and pre 1970’s sludge waste disrupted by the tsunami could make their way to Washington and potentially ashore.

Determining the origin of ocean debris is difficult.

“There’s a lot of debris in the ocean already,” says Neal. So, items that beach goers encounter might not be from Japan.

A diverse collection of items could potentially wash ashore. Beach goers in Washington should be aware that some of the items could be contaminated with hazardous chemicals. Neal recommends if you see debris on the beach notify the proper authorities.

“I won’t be cleaning without personal protection gloves,” she says.

Poster tells you how to deal with debris

Warning posters titled “Japan Tsunami Marine Debris: What to do if you see debris” are going up at beaches around Washington and will be replaced as they weather or disappear, said Charles Wallace, Deputy Director of Emergency Management for Grays Harbor County.

Here’s what the poster says:

  • Be safe: If you don’t know what it is, don’t touch it. Collect as much information from a safe distance as you can – including photos – and report the debris to If the item appears unusual or hazardous, contact your local authorities for specific guidance and instructions (see below).
  • Litter and other typical marine debris items: Common marine debris types will vary by location. If an object can be linked to the tsunami, please report it to Please provide as much information as possible. Where it’s safe and practical to do so, people should remove the debris and recycle any plastics or metals.
  • Hazardous materials: Drums, fuel tanks and containers, gas cans, gas cylinders, chemical storage totes. Do not touch or attempt to move the item. Give authorities a detailed report about what you’ve observed.  Call the National Response Center at 1-800-424-8802 AND 1-800-OILS-911 (1-800-645-7911).
  • Aluminum Canisters: 10-inch aluminum insecticide canisters often are found in high tide zones. Do not open the cap since these fumigant canisters may contain small amounts of toxic phosphine gas. Call the National Response Center at 1-800-424-8802 AND 1-800-OILS-911 (1-800-645-7911).
  • Derelict boat or other large debris item: Do not attempt to move or remove the boat. Report it to the U.S. Coast Guard 24-Hour Command Center, 206-217-6001.
  • Personal effects or possessions from Japan tsunami: Items that appear to be personal belongings should be treated with respect. They should be reported with as much relevant detail as possible. Generally, these objects should be left in place for later retrieval. However, if the object appears likely to be moved by tide or wave action and it is safe to do so, consider moving the object above the high-tide line. Report these to
  • Human remains: It is extremely unlikely any human remains from the tsunami will reach the United States. However, if you encoun-ter any remains, immediately call 9-1-1 and give local authorities a detailed report about what you observed. Do not touch or attempt to move.
  • Unknown Item: Don’t touch or attempt to move the item. Give local authorities a detailed report about what you observed.

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