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Debris from Japanese tsunami a threat to NW jobs, Cantwell says

Model of the debris from the Japanese tsunami reaching the NW coastline.
University of Hawaii
Model of the debris from the Japanese tsunami reaching the NW coastline.

Calling it an “emerging threat,” Sen. Maria Cantwell testified in congress yesterday that a floating debris field five-times the size of the state of Washington is heading for the West Coast and could disrupt the state’s economy when it lands in 2014.

“After the tragic tsunami that struck Japan, whole communities were swept out to sea in an unwieldy mass of toxic debris,” she testified in the Senate Commerce Committee. “We can’t wait until all of this tsunami trash washes ashore. We need to have an aggressive plan on how we’re going to deal with it.”

As result, the committee passed an amendment to address the threat the debris poses to industries along the Washington coastline. The amendment was attached to the Trash-free Seas Act introduced in May by Hawaii Senator Dan Inouye.

The disaster

The March earthquake and tsunami was said by Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan to be the “toughest and most difficult crisis for Japan” since the end of World War II.

According to Wikipedia, The Japanese National Police Agency confirmed 15,828 deaths, 5,942 injured, and 3,760 people missing across eighteen prefectures, as well as over 125,000 buildings damaged or destroyed

Threat to U.S.

And while Japan is still in the early stages of recovering from the disaster, Cantwell said, it will take many years to continue to see the impact of if on the Northwest.

“That’s because over 100,000 tons of the debris from the tsunami is floating toward the United States,” she testified.

Everything from plastics and refrigerators to parts of cars and buildings are in the water and constitute an “emerging threat” to fishing, ecology, shipping and transportation, restaurant business and tourism.

“We in the Washington economy depend on our waterways for a great deal of our commerce,” she said.

Ocean is already full of garbage

“Even before the tsunami, the World Ocean was a dump for rubbish flowing in from rivers, washed off beaches, and jettisoned from oil and gas platforms and from fishing, tourist, and merchant vessels,” according to a report by the International Pacific Research Center at the University of Hawaii.

“Marine debris has become a serious problem for marine ecosystems, fisheries, and shipping. … The massive, concentrated debris launched by the devastating tsunami is now magnifying the hazards.”

Debate on when it will reach shores

Oceanographer and flotsam/jetsam expert Curtis Ebbesmeyer in his blog, Beachcomber Alert,explains:

Over the next five years, according to the Ocean Surface-Current Simulator (OSCURS), the debris will be broadly distributed by the North Pacific Subarctic and Subtropical Gyres along the West Coast of North America and into Garbage Patches. The west coast of North America can expect plastics from the tsunami on the beaches in the spring of 2013, with the highest concentrations in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. Around the summer of 2014, debris will be seen in Hawaii and in the NW Hawaiian Islands, with the highest concentrations likely at French Frigate Shoals.


Kathy Sullivan, deputy administrator of the federal science agency NOAA, says the agency wants ocean mariners “to keep an eye out” for marine debris in the North Pacific. The agency is very eager to receive reports of at-sea sightings, which can be emailed to:

On the Web: