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Alaska couple finds Japanese boat from tsunami

A Metlakatla couple has found what may be the largest item to reach Alaska in the wake of the March 2011 tsunami -- a 24-foot fiberglass boat.

Mark Gunyah and his wife, Michele, were beachcombing along the south coast of Annette Island on Saturday.

"We came around Moss Point and (Mark) noticed the boat up near the treeline," said Michele. "It was upside down and just covered with sea growth. We didn't think anything of it at first."

But as they continued, she said, they found a number of big buoys, seven in all.

"We started thinking: Could this be debris from the tsunami?" Michele said. "So we went back to the boat with some scrapers and, sure enough, the name was written in Japanese."

Mark Gunyah, who works for the Bureau of Indian Affairs maintaining roads on the island, returned with an excavator to right the craft and move it to the water. It floated. With the help of his father, he brought it into Tamgass Harbor, just north of the point. From there it was put on a trailer and brought into Metlakatla, the only town on the island at the southeast tip of Alaska.

"We had one of the men from the Annette Packing Co. Egg Department come take a look at the boat," Michele said. "Being as he's Japanese, he was able to read the lettering."

The man said the name of the boat was "Kaiho-Maru," which he translated as "Pleasant Treasure." He also told the Gunyahs that the boat was "definitely from Japan." He recognized the open Boston Whaler-type design as a popular craft among Japanese fishermen.

The Gunyahs contacted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and sent photos of the boat. No one has yet come to Metlakatla to check out the boat in person, Michele said.

Last month a five-member team from NOAA spent 10 days specifically searching for tsunami debris on the Alaska coast between Ketchikan, just north of Annette Island, and Juneau. They found a number of black buoys similar to those found by the Gunyahs but could not say if those items were directly related to the tsunami. Michele described them as "very hard plastic" and unlike the floats used by fishermen in her part of Alaska.

The NOAA team reported finding no greater density of marine debris last month than in 2008, when a previous inspection was conducted.

Confirmed flotsam from the disaster has been found from Middleton Island, in the Gulf of Alaska -- a child's soccer ball -- to Oregon, where a 160-ton floating dock made landfall after floating across the Pacific Ocean. On Sunday Oregon set up 32 collection sites along its coast to receive debris expected to come ashore.

An abundance of debris reported to be associated with the tsunami has been reported around Yakutat and in British Columbia. The surge of unmarked debris hitting the north shores of Haida Gwaii, also known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, has included "countless Styrofoam pieces," bottles, propane tanks and gas tanks, some with the fuel still in them. The CBC reports that part of the island "looks like a landfill."

As for the Gunyahs' discovery, it is now parked at a road equipment shop some distance from Metlakatla. "We live downtown and thought it would be better to keep it out the road," Michele said. "It's been scraped and pressure washed, but it still smells pretty bad."

However, she added, her husband told her that, if it gets cleaned up enough by Wednesday, he'll roll it on a trailer in the town's Fourth of July parade.

"We'll see if that happens," she said with a laugh. "It's really stinky."