Biologist: Tsunami debris overwhelming in spots

Debris that gathered this past summer on Alaska’s Kayak Island made walking on its beaches feel like walking through a natural disaster zone, a federal biologist said Thursday.

Jacek Maselko, a biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Juneau, Alaska, said he was somewhat skeptical about what he would find when he and a team embarked on a survey of marine debris along Alaska’s coastline. Although the survey was conducted last summer, between June and August, it took time for researchers to assess what they had found.

Maselko talked about the findings Thursday with The Associated Press.

NOAA typically conducts such surveys in the state every 5 to 10 years. This year’s work coincided with concerns about debris washing ashore from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

Maselko said early on in the trip, he didn’t see anything all that unusual or different from what he encountered during the last survey in 2008. “It wasn’t until I started going further up north and west that things started clicking with me, that, yeah, really this is something a little bit different, the densities are definitely increasing, and there’s more unique things,” he said.

The survey began in southeast Alaska and covered much of the Gulf coast, ending around Kodiak.

At Kayak Island, which is in the Gulf of Alaska, “it really, really hit home because that place was just amazing,” he said. Kayak and Montague islands tend to be collector sites, prone to larger amounts of debris because of the movement of the winds and currents. But Maselko said the change in the amount and type of debris at Kayak, from when he walked beaches there in 2008, was overwhelming.

“I really started feeling like I’m walking through … debris from a natural disaster zone,” he said, adding: “That was definitely the most surprising and eye-opening place that I’ve surveyed. Other places, I could’ve made a case that, yes, maybe there is some Japanese debris. Things are changing, yes, but can we attribute it to the Japanese tsunami? There’s no smoking gun.”

When he arrived at Kayak Island, debris was everywhere on some of the beaches, including foam, coolers, refrigerators, toys, insulation and plastic bottles.

“You couldn’t really walk through without stepping on some type of foam,” he said. “It really did look like the debris that you see from the video footage from the tsunami.”

Some groups that routinely clean ocean debris from Alaska beaches — particularly in the Gulf of Alaska region — have raised concerns about the volume and type of debris that they have been seeing, and attributed it to the tsunami. NOAA has said significant changes in the type and amount of debris on a shoreline are an indicator that it is from the tsunami.

Only a relative handful of items, compared to the more than 1,400 marine debris sightings that have been reported, have been traced back to the tsunami.

The state of Alaska is working on a debris plan, with a goal of having it ready in time for next year’s clean-up season, said Elaine Busse Floyd, the lead on marine debris planning for Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation. Debris is already moving off so-called collector beaches and into the Prince William Sound shoreline, she said.

A proposed $60.4 billion federal disaster aid package includes money for marine debris removal but it’s not clear how much might go toward clean-up of any tsunami debris that washes ashore in Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington or California. The package includes $56.8 million for NOAA to track, map and clean up marine debris.

Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich, who requested up to $20 million for tsunami debris cleanup, said they will fight to ensure a sufficient portion of the funding goes to protecting U.S. shores from tsunami debris.

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