Tsunami was unavoidable; trash choking oceans isn’t

As a resident of the Pacific Northwest and head of an ocean conservation group, I watched with concern the news of a large Japanese dock landing in Oregon after being washed away by the devastating 2011 tsunami in Japan.

While it is still too soon to know exactly how big a problem this debris will be for U.S. shores, the International Pacific Research Center estimates that 5 percent or less of the approximately 1.5 million tons of debris in the Pacific Ocean could make landfall.

Gov. Chris Gregoire and U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell should be commended for their recent efforts to make sure the response to potential impacts of tsunami debris is prepared and coordinated. An issue with such far-reaching potential will require cooperation of government at all levels, as well as help from corporations and the public at large.

To prepare for what might come, we should prioritize baseline monitoring, modeling and outreach in communities. Ocean Conservancy has been working closely with the Obama administration, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as they ramp up response efforts. Thankfully, NOAA’s Marine Debris Program has been studying the perennial challenge of ocean debris for years.

In a monitoring experiment recently in Hawaii, NOAA began testing aircraft and satellite capabilities to find debris as it heads across the Pacific. On Alaska’s fragile and remote coastline, the agency deployed a crew of scientists to monitor where debris is coming ashore.

Ocean Conservancy and volunteers along the West Coast are following NOAA’s observation guidelines to keep an eye out for tsunami-related debris as well as making use of the practical materials provided, including GPS devices and waterproof cameras. NOAA expects to establish approximately 60 monitoring sites on the West Coast, including about 20 in Washington, to identify baselines that potential future tsunami debris events can be measured against.

In addition to monitoring and volunteer cleanups, we also should be advocating for the resources that may be needed to deal with the aftermath of a disaster of this magnitude.

Right now, those resources are lacking. The head of NOAA, Dr. Jane Lubchenco, said in a congressional hearing recently that funding is “nowhere near what is likely to be needed to deal with this disaster.” With cash-strapped states and the significant cost of removing large debris items – such as an estimated $84,000 for the dock that washed ashore – more funds must be dedicated to this issue.

It’s important to remember that the while the tsunami and the debris in its wake were not preventable, the larger issue of trash choking our ocean is. Items that we use every day – shopping bags, food wrappers, picnic supplies – consistently make the top 10 list of items found in Ocean Conservancy’s annual International Coastal Cleanup. By making smart choices every day, we can keep trash off the streets and away from the ocean.

With political support for funding, we can prevent and reduce the impact of the global marine debris problem. And with scientific research and industry innovations, we can better understand what we are up against and develop products that will be less harmful to the ocean. It truly is up to all of us to work together to maintain the beauty and health of our ocean and coastlines.