Several times each week, Russ Lewis and a few friends pick up litter that washes ashore on a 7-mile stretch of ocean shoreline, and most of it is plastics of one kind or another.
Some of the stuff, such as the strapping akin to what Northwest crabbers use to wrap around bait – most likely comes from close by.
Other items, such as a mannequin head with Japanese writing – are presumed to be part of the detritus from the March 2011 Japanese tsunami that continues to wash ashore in the Pacific Northwest.
“Sometimes the truck looks like a covered wagon, it is so loaded down with trash,” said Lewis, a retired federal worker who lives in Ocean Park, Pacific County.
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Plastics are one of the most ubiquitous products of the petrochemical industry. One study estimates the oceans receive nearly 6 million to almost 13 million metric tons of plastics each year. This debris takes a huge toll on birds, fish, marine mammals and other sea life, either through entanglement or ingestion of degraded bits and pieces.
“It really is a systemic threat to the health of the ocean itself,” said Kathryn Sullivan, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who visited Long Beach earlier this month to help mark the 10th anniversary of an agency program that works to combat marine debris.
“If we open the stomachs of dead and stranded mammals and seabirds, we are finding increasing amounts of marine debris – plastics, Styrofoam, beads and such – in their guts. That’s like a slow poisoning from within,” Sullivan said.
Washington shorelines are a major collection point for marine debris and are the focal point of the annual coast cleanup April 23 at more than 50 beaches on the outer coast and Strait of Juan de Fuca.
“This winter, storms we know brought in a lot of debris,” said John Schmidt, Washington Coast Savers coordinator for the cleanup. “We had 1,500 volunteers last year, and we encourage folks to register so we know how many to plan for.”
Where debris is from
Plastics dominate the human-generated trash strewn along Washington’s coasts. One two-year survey of 17 coastal sites found that plastics formed 92 percent of marine debris, according to Liam Antrim, a researcher at the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, who presented his findings this month in Long Beach.
Some of this debris comes from regional sources, such as trash washed out to sea by the Columbia or other rivers, or gear lost from coastal fishing boats or oyster farms.
Other debris spins off from a massive collection point – a gyre – that circles about in the North Pacific. Though it is sometimes called the garbage patch, NOAA researchers say this gathering zone is largely made up of smaller pieces of plastic, which may lie below the surface and are not easily seen from the side of a boat.
Some of this material consists of microplastics – beads, fibers and pellets used in manufacturing or degraded from larger chunks. These have been found in the stomachs of marine life ranging from plankton to whales, and NOAA reports that researchers are studying how they may move through the food chain.
Marine debris from the Japanese tsunami also gets caught in the gyre, and some of that material continues – a half-decade later – to make its way to Washington’s coasts.
Lewis, a beachcomber who in 2012 decided to focus on beach cleanups, has been monitoring the flow of suspected tsunami debris, such as chunks of foam housing insulation and plastic bottles, and totes with Japanese writing.
Lewis and his team annually haul away about 10 tons of debris from the beaches, and he estimates that about half is suspected Japanese debris. He said most of what arrives now is slower-moving debris below the water line and thus – unlike high-riding buoys – didn’t get a boost from prevailing winds.
Unfamiliar species arrive
The tsunami debris also has proved to be a surprisingly capable transporter of coastal species from one continent to another. More than 350 Japanese species have been identified on objects that washed ashore in Hawaii or on the North American Pacific Coast. About 100 of those species were found in Washington.
They include fish, mollusks, algae and many other forms of sea life, according to Allen Pleus, who leads an aquatic invasive-species program for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Some of these Japanese species arrived on two concrete docks swept away from the port of Misawa.
Others species were found attached to – or in – Japanese boats, largely made from fiberglass, that came ashore.
So far 65 of these boat and boat pieces have been found on the coastlines of Hawaii and North America. Twenty-five of those came ashore in Washington, including a 16-foot fiberglass skiff found just last month south of Kalaloch Beach, with registration numbers now being checked by the Japanese consulate.
The number of Japanese species found on this debris varies greatly.
“It is very strange,” Pleus said. “Sometimes it comes in, and you find only a handful. And sometimes it comes in and looks like Noah’s Ark.”
Some experts worry that newly introduced species could establish themselves in the Northwest and eventually harm native Northwest species.
“We don’t know, and we’re not looking very closely,” Pleus said. “The resources that we have now are very limited.”