Tsunami Debris: Is CA Feeling the Impact?

Follow-up from March 6th talk

March 13, 2015

Eben Schwartz’s Presentation: Tsunami Debris-Fort Bragg – 3-6-15

Japanese soccer ball found in Alaska. Photo credit: David Baxter
Japanese soccer ball found in Alaska. Photo credit: David Baxter

Overview: We were fortunate enough to host Eben Swartz, the Marine Debris Coordinator for the CA Coastal Commission, on March 6th at Town Hall.  Eben gave a very thorough presentation on the debris field migrating across the Pacific Ocean following the tsunami that hit Japan in 2011.  The Japanese Ministry of the Environment estimates that 5 million tons of debris washed into the ocean by the tsunami, 70% of which sank near the coast of Japan.  NOAA expects widely scattered debris to wash up along the west coast for a few years. Eben showed maps of potential and confirmed locations of debris along the west coast, but pointed out it is very hard to confirm that ocean trash is tsunami debris.  He discussed the statewide program for monitoring tsunami debris, and talked about the collaborative efforts with the Noyo Center for Marine Science volunteers to monitor 40 miles of coastline in Mendocino County.

bull kelp-web
Don’t be afraid of fresh and local seafood products.

Radiation:  Eben addressed the issue of radiation and whether we should be concerned while conducting beach clean-ups, eating fish or seaweed, or swimming along our coast.  He first pointed out that the tsunami debris washed into the Pacific days before the nuclear meltdown, so it isn’t a worry.  Furthermore, all testing to date has shown no radioactive contamination anywhere near acceptable limits for human health and safety.  Recent monitoring efforts conducted by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution has found trace amounts of Fukushim-derived cesium-134 off the coast of Humboldt as part of their ongoing monitoring of natural and human sources of radioactivity in the ocean. The amount of cesium-134 reported is less than 2 Becquerels per cubic meter (the number of decay events per second per 260 gallons of water), far below where one might expect any measurable risk to human health or marine life, according to international health agencies.  And it is more than 1000 times lower than acceptable limits in drinking water set by US EPA.  No fish species tested have been of concern.  As for seaweed, the Rising Tide Sea Vegetable website reports that for the last four years, they have submitted local seaweed samples to U.C. Berkeley’s Department of Nuclear Engineering and report that for the 2014 harvest, “no radioactive isotopes that can be attributed to Fukushima were detected.”

Other risks: Although addressed only briefly, invasive species found on tsunami debris is a concern.  Teams of scientists from around the North Pacific region have identified more than 165 species since the now infamous dock reached Agate Beach near Newport, Oregon in of 2012, and another 40-50 species that were found on other debris items, including boats. “The crustaceans and bivalves are of particular concern because they could introduce new diseases, and compete with, displace or otherwise affect our oyster or mussel populations,” says John Chapman, an Oregon State University marine invasive species specialist at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center.  The rate of debris washing to shore has significantly decreased but scientist remain on the look out for potential invaders.

marine debris
Stomach contents of seabird. FACT: 100% of Laysan Albatross carcasses found on Midway Atoll had plastic in their stomachs.

Marine debris:   The last third of Eben’s talk addressed marine debris in general.  Far overshadowing tsunami debris, chronic marine debris is a global pollution problem that impacts human health and safety, endangers wildlife and aquatic habitats, and costs local & national economies millions in wasted resources and lost revenues.  80% of all ocean trash comes from land-based sources, such as litter, industrial discharge and garbage management. Plastics are a major environmental problem, as are the component “nurdles” that don’t break down.  Eben stressed that the last few decades have proven that clean-ups aren’t the right answer to this growing problem, and we should focus on reduction at the source in coming years.  Many cities, including Fort Bragg, have implemented plastic bag bans, and some are also banning styrofoam and other chronic pollutants.  For example, San Francisco has seen a 34% drop in plastic bag debris since implementing its bag ban in 2008.  However, even with the increase in recycling efforts, the US produces vastly more plastic than we recycle so this problem requires all of us to become more conscientious consumers.

What can you do?

  • Join our tsunami debris walks and/or report any suspected tsunami debris.  NOAA has asked that confirmed tsunami debris be reported via email to [email protected]. Record location, day and time found, photographs and descriptions.
  • Be a smart consumer and reduce your personal consumption of plastic: Purchase recycled, reusable, and smart packaging items. Eliminate single use plastics.  Carry reusable shopping bags.
  • Reuse and recycle as much as possible.
  • Dispose of all trash properly, assuring that trash doesn’t get into the storm drains and waterways.
  • Encourage reduction of plastics at stores, requesting products with smarter, recyclable packaging .
  • Report garbage mismanagement to the proper authorities.
  • Assure that recycling bins are present at events.
  • Keep our beaches clean! Make sure to pack out all garbage from picnics and hikes at the beach.  And get involved in the annual California Coastal Clean Up Day in September.