U.S., Canada need to be proactive in tracking tsunami debris

On March 11, 2011, a devastating 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit Japan, killing nearly 16,000 people and generating a deadly 20-foot tsunami wave that hit the Tohoku region fiercely. The earthquake and tsunami damaged over 300 ports, and destroyed around 25,000 fishing vessels.

As the tsunami receded back into the Pacific Ocean, it washed an estimated 5 million tons of debris out to sea — about 1.5 million tons of which remained afloat. The early response from U.S. government authorities was essentially a “wait-and-see” approach, largely focusing on attempting to predict the movement of the tsunami debris as it made its way toward the West Coast of North America. Several months after the earthquake, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) added a Tohoku tsunami section to its marine debris website (marinedebris.noaa.gov). Then, in April of 2012, the U.S. Maritime Administration (MarAd) issued a Maritime Advisory for U.S.-flag vessels to keep a lookout for tsunami flotsam when transiting the North Pacific.

Usually too low in the water to provide a good radar return, and too easily missed among the waves or during darkness to be easily seen visually, floating debris at sea is hard to detect. While most debris is too small to be a problem for vessels underway, in the past large pieces have proved a serious danger. The racing yacht Ciao sank in the Pacific after hitting a partially submerged floating metal object, as did a French Transat yacht in the North Atlantic. One passenger died and 99 others were injured when the 86-foot hydrofoil ferry Kobee struck something on its voyage from Japan to Korea. The 126-foot coastal freighter Boscobel sank after hitting an unidentified object on the surface of the North Sea. Today, the millions of tons of floating wreckage from the Tohoku tsunami pose a serious threat to maritime safety.

Last summer the 5 Gyres Institute’s 72-foot boat Sea Dragon was in the middle of the North Pacific. Its purpose was to try to get an idea of the amount of the tsunami debris heading our way. According to the director of the institute, Marcus Eriksen, a piece of flotsam passed by the boat every three and a half minutes.

In June 2012, a floating concrete dock 66 feet long, 19 feet wide, 7 feet high, and weighing 165 tons washed ashore on Agate Beach near Newport, Ore. After it was verified to be tsunami debris, many expressed amazement that a ship or boat hadn’t rammed the structure during its long 15-month, 5,000-mile journey. Luckily so, since even a slower moving vessel slamming into a 165-ton concrete dock at sea could cause an environmental emergency, or sink and claim the lives of the mariners on board. After the beaching occurred, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) publicly stated that “the huge dock that washed ashore in Agate Beach is clear evidence that debris from last year’s tsunami in Japan is reaching the Oregon coast much sooner than anyone predicted.”

That wasn’t the only incident in 2012. In March the derelict 164-foot Japanese fishing boat Ryou-Un Maru was spotted by the Canadian Coast Guard in shipping lanes near the Alaska/British Columbia border. Verified to be tsunami wreckage and deemed to be a hazard to vessels at sea, it was sunk as a safety precaution by the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Anacapa. Not long after, two fishermen near Hawaii reported sighting a 30-foot-by-50-foot floating concrete dock. Then in December off the coast of Washington, the 50-foot fishing boat Lady Nancy narrowly avoided a 65-foot, 185-ton floating concrete dock. Thus far, NOAA has relied mainly on computer models and e-mail reports to give an indication of where the Tohoku tsunami debris is moving. The fact that in 2012 three large floating concrete docks and a small ship were able to reach West Coast shipping lanes undetected shows that a more proactive approach is needed.

To their credit, Wyden, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), have been vocal about the threat to shipping posed by the tsunami debris, along with the need for a plan to deal with the problem. Cantwell successfully pushed to add an amendment to the Coast Guard Reauthorization Act, signed by President Obama in December 2012, that directs NOAA to set up a task force to come up with a debris cleanup plan. That’s a good idea, but focusing on cleanup of debris after it washes ashore avoids dealing with the hazard that large pieces of tsunami flotsam pose at sea. To help keep mariners safe, I also think that our government needs to more effectively coordinate the identification and tracking of Tohoku tsunami wreckage.

All vessels sailing in the North Pacific should be involved in reporting large tsunami debris. NOAA can direct the over 900 foreign and U.S.-flag vessels that are part of its Voluntary Observing Ship Program to make reporting significant debris sightings a priority. NOAA could make use of other public and private oceanographic ships in the search, including Japanese, Canadian and Mexican vessels. A call for help to all other commercial and recreational vessels to participate and pass on information about debris sightings in coastal waters, through NOAA’s MaRep (Marine Report) system, would then involve all North Pacific mariners in this immense effort.

Once large debris that could be hazardous to vessels is spotted, it should then be identified and tracked. Utilizing NOAA ships, oceanographic vessels and military ships from the U.S., Canada, Japan and Mexico, these large pieces of hazardous floating wreckage could be fitted with a tracking beacon and radar transponder. That way their position could be easily monitored, and any vessels coming within a close proximity would be alerted and could then pass safely by.

As the West Coast of North America sees the beginning wave of tsunami debris arrive, it is obvious that it will take a great effort to keep North Pacific waters safe. By working together, the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Japan can not only help stop the tsunami from taking any more lives, but can also show how successful a mutual maritime effort can be. Then, from the ruins of the terrible tragedy that occurred on March 11, 2011, a demonstration of what international cooperation can achieve will emerge.

Till next time I wish you all smooth sailin’.

Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at captsweeney@profressionstg.wpengine.com.

By Professional Mariner Staff