U.S. Bound: Japanese Tsunami Junk Carries Invasive Species

As much as 1.5 million tons of debris is floating in the world's oceans in the wake of last year's tragedy.

floating ocean trash
(Photo: Discovery News)
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

A year after a tsunami rocked Japan’s northern coast, a wide variety of detritus has already arrived on the west coast of North America: Soccer balls and fishing floats, a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, a 150-foot fishing boat (which was blown up by the U.S. Coast Guard before it could reach shore), the contents of thousands of homes and, near Newport, Oregon, a 66-foot-long, seven-foot-tall, 19-foot-wide section of a dock.

Estimates from Japan are that there may be as much as 1.5 million tons of debris floating in the ocean post-tsunami. While none is thought to be radioactive—it was dragged into the sea before the nuclear plants began spilling—a new and serious concern are the millions of invasive species that have hitched rides aboard the refuse.

That hunk of dock, for example, bore barnacles, starfish, urchins, anemones, mussels, snails, and algae—all of which are potentially harmful to organisms living in U.S. waters.

While the tsunami-produced pollution is potentially very problematic, it’s hard to get veteran beach-protectors too whipped up about the issue, let alone the general public.

While tsunami garbage could eventually amount to a serious problem, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the plastic we’ve already dumped into the ocean. A recent study found that the plastic debris found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has increased by 100 times in the past 40 years.

There are no images as gut-wrenching as oil-soaked pelicans and otters. There is no bad guy (BP), nor evil industry regulator to blame in this situation. Yet some experts suggest the potential harm from invasive species could be worse in the long-term than an oil spill, in part because they are harder to see and identify, thus trickier to clean up. NOAA suggests tsunami debris may cover an area three times the size of the U.S.

So far no one has a plan on how best to monitor and clean up the coming mess; Alaska Senator Mark Begich has suggested that a $45 million fund be established from federal monies to help pay for any clean-up.

The problem is compounded by the fact that it’s difficult to say which floating trash is a result of the tsunami...and which is just regular everyday ocean-borne garbage.

Invasive species hitching rides on currents or boats is hardly new. It’s been happening in the U.S. since the very first ships arrived from Europe carrying seaweed and barnacles from foreign waters. Today, it’s estimated that more than 500 plants and animals from foreign shores have established new homes in U.S. waters.

Riding on that hunk of dock, for example, torn loose from a fishing port on the northern tip of Japan, were one and a half tons of seaweed, mussels, barnacles and hundreds of millions of individual living organisms. Before it was buried above the high water line, it was scraped and sterilized by torch. But invasive species may have still survived, like the exotic seaweed called wakame, an international nuisance not yet found in Oregon. There is no way to know if it may have released spores or larvae before the dock was scoured.

While tsunami garbage could eventually amount to a serious problem, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the plastic we’ve already dumped into the ocean. A recent study found that plastic debris found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has increased by 100 times in the past 40 years. And that’s just one of the insidious gyres filled with swirling plastic that has been identified in each of the five named oceans.

While tsunamis and earthquakes are hard if not impossible to predict, thus making invasive species more difficult to keep at bay, dumping plastic into the ocean is still something we have the power to prevent.

What steps should the U.S. government take to limit the potential ecological damage inflicted by these invasive species?

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