Four years after a tsunami devastated Japan’s coast, debris still washes up in Washington — and winds up in the hands of state wildlife officials.
The debris comes with an environmental threat — invasive species and parasites that have hitched a ride across the Pacific Ocean.
Another barnacle-encrusted Japanese skiff has made its way to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife’s aquatic invasive species unit. The 25-foot boat was recovered off a remote shore near La Push and arrived in two halves last week at the department’s property south of Tumwater.
The unit’s goal is to remove marine debris and prevent the spread of invasive marine life. On Thursday morning, coordinator Allen Pleus and technician Nancy Franco combed the boat’s crevices for biological samples that will be shipped to experts around the country for analysis.
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The boat is the third such project to reach the unit this year. Despite the faded Japanese characters painted on the hull, the department has not confirmed the boat as debris from the 2011 tsunami. The same goes for a 30-foot boat found recently near Long Beach. To qualify as tsunami debris, the Japanese consulate requires registration numbers or other means for formal identification, Pleus said.
Nearly 40 such projects passed through the unit last year, said Pleus, who has seen everything from docks and boats to tires and refrigerators in the years since the tsunami. Some debris has been colonized by dozens of species that not only survived the trip, but were thriving when discovered. He described one boat that likely floated near Hawaii and picked up the tropical striped beakfish, which eventually acclimated to the Pacific Northwest’s colder waters while harbored safely inside. The boat recovered near Long Beach had more than 25 pink barnacles from Japan that were still alive.
“These become their own ecosystems in the ocean,” he said. “What’s not natural is that they’re on manmade objects that don’t disintegrate.”
The tsunami was the result of a 9.0-magnitude earthquake on March 11, 2011, off the coast of Japan. It was the most powerful earthquake to have ever hit Japan and was one of the strongest ever recorded.
The earthquake triggered a tsunami that destroyed much of Japan’s northern coast and also caused meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Nearly 16,000 people died in the catastrophe, according to the Japanese government, which reported that the tsunami swept nearly 5 million tons of debris out to sea. Much of the debris was believed to have sunk.
The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that the bulk of debris is still dispersed north of Hawaii and east of Midway Atoll.
Beach users who find tsunami-related debris are asked to email DisasterDebris@noaa.gov or call the WDFW’s Aquatic Invasive Species Unit at 360-902-2700. The department suggests taking a photo and noting the location of the debris. The state Health Department reports that it’s highly unlikely the debris will be radioactive from the Fukushima meltdown.