By Terry Dillman
Concerned about the threat that debris from the March 2011 tsunami that wracked Japan poses to ocean-going vessels, US Representative Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) and US Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) met in Newport with fishing vessel, tugboat and steamship operators on June 30 to discuss what those operators are seeing in the ocean, what is being done about it, and what still needs doing.
The meeting at Oregon State University (OSU)’s Hatfield Marine Science Center (HMSC) also included representatives from the US Coast Guard, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and various state and local officials.
Oregon authorities have established a network of 32 collection stations, and it seems everyone is on the lookout for tsunami debris that washes up on the state’s shores, but Wyden and Schrader (D-Ore.) said they were concerned about potential threats to fishing and shipping interests by debris still floating across the Pacific Ocean toward the coast of Washington, Oregon and to a lesser extent California. Such debris is expected to remain an issue for at least the next few years as it circulates to and fro among the ocean currents.
“A lot of attention has focused on the debris that is washing ashore along our coast, but it’s important that we not overlook what’s in the water and the dangers it poses to fishermen, tugboat operators, steamboat operators and others,” Wyden noted.
“It’s what you can’t see that is our biggest concern,” Schrader said. “We need to understand the degree of threat and how to respond to it.”
A dock 66 feet long, 19 feet wide and seven feet high washed up on Newport’s Agate Beach on June 5, stirring worldwide interest and concern among emergency response officials, partly because of its size, but mainly due to its arrival nine months ahead of scientific predictions. Should smaller fishing and other vessels encounter such a large piece of debris, especially at night, it could prove disastrous, Charleston-based commercial fisherman Rick Goche told the federal lawmakers during a 90-minute brainstorming session at HMSC that took place after Wyden and Schrader visited the attention-getting dock on Newport’s Agate Beach.
Goche and others painted a Titanic-type scenario, with a piece of debris the size of the Agate Beach dock playing the role of the iceberg. Most of it would lurk beneath the surface, making it difficult to detect at night on the ocean waves, even with radar and spotlights. By the time anyone noticed, they said, it would be too late.
Both federal lawmakers said they want the federal government to become a “better and smarter partner” in tackling the threat that such floating debris could pose to fishing boats, barges and tugs along the Oregon Coast.
“This is an enormous part of our economy,” Wyden said. “This is vital for the men and women whose jobs and lives are at stake.”
After visiting the dock and talking to reporters at the beach, Schrader and Wyden went to HMSC to talk with representatives from the commercial and recreational fishing industry, commercial shipping industry, state and federal agencies, including the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, along with local emergency managers, to determine how to deal with the issue. The focus on hazards to ocean-going vessels had not been previously discussed, and the key aspect for most fishing industry folks was knowing where and when they might encounter debris, especially the boat-scuttling size.
Goche and others said they would like a better way of notifying vessels about dangerous debris. Most folks put the spotlight on the US Coast Guard, which Wyden said is responsible for keeping shipping lanes clear, but noted a “gray area” between those lanes and the shore.
Various reports surfaced that Coast Guard officials were alerted to the dock’s presence three days before it beached itself, but failed to notify anyone.
Coast Guard and NOAA officials say alerts go out routinely, and did in this instance. Coast Guard crews monitored the dock’s movement along the coast until its journey ended with the beach landing seen ’round the world. Coast Guard officials said they rely on commercial vessels to be their eyes and ears out at sea, a notion backed by fishing and other agency representatives. They suggested a system in which everybody on the water can put debris sightings into one site, although given the size of the ocean and its constant motion, they could never track every piece of debris or keep complete tabs on it after spotting it.
Wyden and Schrader said they would use the information gleaned from the June 30 meeting to decide the best way for the federal government and its relevant agencies to help.
“We need to do everything to protect our residents, industries and visitors, so everyone can enjoy our coastline for years to come,” Schrader noted.
Gov. John Kitzhaber has formed a high-level tsunami debris task force led by Brig. Gen. Mike Caldwell, deputy director of the Oregon National Guard and interim director of the state’s Office of Emergency Management, who participated in the June 30 interactive briefing. Caldwell, who is coordinating tsunami debris response and cleanup efforts, suggested they set up a system similar to the one already in place for tsunami alerts to warn commercial fleets about possible threats from tsunami-generated debris.
Good idea theoretically, said NOAA officials. But they noted that it took years to develop the tsunami alert set-up, and tracking debris from tsunamis is far from an exact science. Wind and currents are mercurial during most seasons, and with this year’s spring-like conditions still holding sway in the Pacific, including unusual prevailing southwesterlies, tracking pieces of debris – even ones the size of the Agate Beach dock – is a needle-and-haystack scenario. First, they have to find it, then identify it, then somehow track it – a difficult venture at best, given the ever-moving targets involved. Even tracking via satellite can prove problematic. It also costs money.
NOAA’s marine debris program, they noted, is small, including the budget for it. And during an election year, federal budget trimming is at a crescendo from every angle.
“We continue to actively work with the state and other federal agencies on the challenges associated with tsunami debris,” Nancy Wallace, director of NOAA’s marine debris program, said in a press release announcing the availability of $250,000 in grants for Washington, Oregon, California, Alaska and Hawaii to cover debris removal costs.
As of press time, no new or varied form of official warning system was in place, other than the usual marine alerts issued by the Coast Guard and NOAA.
“The agencies need credit for their work in cleaning and removing debris,” Lincoln County Commissioner Terry Thompson, a long-time commercial fisherman and member of the governor’s task force, said.
He, too, is concerned about communication to the fishing fleet alerting vessel crews to debris in the water. “We need better communication if people identify debris in the ocean to report it to the fleet,” he said, noting that Coast Guard did issue a Notice to Mariners about the Agate Beach dock, but “those don’t always repeat.”
With the tuna fisheries in full swing, Thompson said that it could prove disastrous if a boat should strike something the size of that dock as it floated across the ocean at a 45-degree angle. Other costs associated with tsunami debris are also a concern.
The state recently awarded an $84,000 contract for demolition and removal of the dock, but Thompson sees a potential issue if more starts coming ashore at one time.
“If it all came ashore at one time, we’d have an emergency. Because it’s coming ashore now and will be over a period of time, it hasn’t been considered a disaster,” Thompson said.
The task force will meet at least monthly to discuss issues related to tsunami debris, and track when and where debris comes ashore.
Invasive Species a Big Concern
Marine scientists were aware that an unknown amount of debris washed into the ocean in the aftermath of the earthquake-generated tsunami that struck Japan in March 2011. They were also aware that an unknown but sizeable chunk of that debris would eventually wash up on Oregon shores. They even had what they considered a reasonable estimate of the arrival time.
Nature had other ideas as the ocean unexpectedly chucked the piece of floating dock as big as a good-sized commercial fishing vessel onto Agate Beach several months earlier than anticipated.
While researchers and officials from various government agencies are concerned about possible chemical contamination and cost of cleaning up the debris navigating haphazardly toward Oregon with the wind and currents, the dock turned their attention to what could become a more viable threat: invasive species. “This float is an island unlike any other transoceanic debris we have ever seen,” said John Chapman, marine invasive species specialist at HMSC.
The dock was a de facto island teeming with invasive plants and animals, including two – brown algae known as wakame kelp and northern Pacific sea stars – among the 100 worst invasive species, according to the Oregon Invasive Species Council (OISC).
Invasive species are plants, animals and other organisms not native to a region which, when introduced either accidentally or intentionally, out-compete native species for available resources. Because they often arrive in new areas without their natural predators, invasive species are often difficult to control. Left unchecked, many invasive species can transform entire ecosystems, as native species and those that depend on them for food, shelter and habitat disappear.
Such wholesale changes can wreak environmental and economic havoc, altering an ecosystem and ruining fisheries, either partially or completely.
A team led by Steve Rumrill, the shellfish program leader for ODFW in the Marine Resources Program at HMSC, scraped the dock clean of all plants and animals and buried them in the sand out of reach of the high tide mark.
Caren Braby, ODFW’s marine resources program manager, said the only way to stop invading species is to kill them by removing them from the aquatic marine environment. “We had no big vat of chlorine to dip it into,” she said of the dock, noting it as the only way they could be certain of killing off every last trace of the invasive algae and other organisms.
With such invasive species as wakame or the aggressive northern Pacific sea stars, it’s a matter of kill or be killed.
So Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD) officials, working with ODFW, have chosen to demolish the dock rather than tow it to another location and risk spreading invasive species. ODFW is coordinating with various state and federal agencies, non-government organizations, and university researchers to formulate a response to the potential invasive species threat from tsunami debris.
In the wake of the dock’s arrival, folks have inundated HMSC and ODFW with pieces of marine debris discovered on the beach, especially those with any living flora or fauna on them. HMSC and ODFW officials are asking beachcombers to instead become the first line of defense.
“We don’t have the staff or resources to focus on each piece of debris,” Braby said, noting they are asking beachcombers to “take ownership” in their interactions with marine debris and to “make good decisions” in handling it.
“The main thing is to get it out of the water, and if something is living on it, make sure it goes to the nearest garbage can,” she added.
ODFW officials also would like as much information about any debris as possible. They ask beachcombers to take photos, if possible, and submit them with details about location, date and time to www.oregoninvasiveshotline.org or call 1-866-INVADER. For large marine debris that can’t be moved, report the item and location to OPRD at email@example.com , or call 2-1-1, a new system that has been set up to handle tsunami debris.
Land-based efforts are more shipshape, and will indirectly help the fishing industry. Four nonprofit organizations with long histories of stewardship on the Oregon coast have joined forces to also focus the threat of tsunami debris washing up on Oregon’s shoreline and into its bays, where it could wreak havoc on commercial fishing ingress and egress.
CoastWatch, Surfrider Foundation, SOLVE and Washed Ashore – along with academic partner Oregon Sea Grant – have formed the Oregon Marine Debris Team to collaborate on citizen-based efforts to track and clean up tsunami debris. An estimated 1.5-million tons of debris pulled out to sea by the tsunami is circulating the Pacific, with an unknown amount likely to wash up in Oregon.
This “dream team” wants to organize hundreds of volunteers to systematically monitor the coast, identify and report areas where tsunami debris is accumulating, and participate in cleanup efforts. Willing citizens will join pools of volunteers available to respond to cleanup alerts in a given area.
“Public agencies are making plans at the state, federal and local levels about tsunami debris issues,” said Charlie Plybon, Surfrider Foundation’s Oregon field manager. “They have an important role to play in setting up hotlines, providing debris receptacles and handling material that is dangerous or too bulky for volunteers to handle. However, cleaning up our beaches relies upon all of us. The key to responding to this challenge to our coastal environment lies with educating and activating volunteers.”
Agencies, he noted, can’t do that by themselves.
The groups forming the Oregon Marine Debris Team began working together earlier this year, holding a series of 13 public workshops throughout the coastal region and inland. The workshops focused on the nature and extent of the debris problem, sought to dispel unnecessary concerns about radiation, and explained the role state and federal agencies can play and the roles for which volunteers are crucial. Through these workshops, the team began building a database of potential volunteers for their collective project.
“We have an extraordinary tradition of public use of our shoreline, and public stewardship over that shoreline,” said CoastWatch Director Phillip Johnson.
The Oregon Marine Debris Team also collaborates with Oregon’s Japanese tsunami marine debris coordination efforts, and has representatives on the West Coast Governor’s Alliance and governor’s tsunami debris task force.
Terry Dillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.