FORKS, Wash. — John Anderson is standing in his front yard, dwarfed by a 40-foot tall tower made entirely of crab pot buoys. The yard around him is filled with bits of flotsam and jetsam that he’s scoured from Northwestern beaches over the past 35 years.
“I collect everything,” Anderson says, “I have a museum here that has everything that ever came in on the beach in there and most people call it garbage, trash and I call it treasure. I’ve beach-combed just about everything there is.”
In his sandy wanderings Anderson has found a 2.5 million-year-old mammoth tooth, bits of space shuttles and shipwrecks – even rubber chickens.
So he knows what’s normal for beach debris. But after a storm at the end of November, he noticed something different.
From his pile of debris Anderson drags out a round black float. It’s about 3-and-a-half feet long. He’s found 6 others like it and believes they’re from a Japanese oyster farm in the area where the tsunami hit last year.
These floats sit high in the water, which made them travel faster across the surface of the Pacific – pushed by wind as well as currents. People have reported seeing them from Oregon to British Columbia and Alaska.
They could be the first emissaries from the massive amount of debris that was washed off the Japanese coast last March. The 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami there caused a nuclear meltdown at three reactors.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has modeled the movement of the tsunami debris and projects that most of it will hit the Northwest Hawaiian Islands this winter and the West coast of the US later this year and into 2013. Peter Murphy, of NOAA’s Marine Debris program says radioactivity is not a major concern.
“The consensus is that the debris being radioactive is highly unlikely, based on several factors,” he says.
Factor one: the nuclear meltdown occurred after the tsunami had already washed the debris away from the coast.
Factor two: The tsunami hit a massive amount of coastline – most of which was not close to the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant.
And factor three, the ships that have come from Japan since the tsunami have been tested for radioactivity and have not shown elevated levels.
That doesn’t mean this huge amount of debris isn’t cause for concern. It could smother habitat and tangle up marine life. But at this point Murphy says there’s a lot more to be learned.
“We’re looking towards understanding better how much debris and how much of a problem it’s going to add and whether it’s going to be different impacts caused by the type of debris that came from the tsunami,” he says.
It’s a gray windy day on the Olympic Coast when I meet Dana Sarff and Billy Noel for a walk on Sooes Beach on the Makah Indian Reservation. The Makah lands are located at the far Northwestern tip of the state.
Late last year Noel found the same black floats John Anderson has in his yard in Forks.
“When we were coming out here we see these objects on the beach, don’t look right,” recalls Noel, a member of the Makah tribe who works for the tribal fisheries department.”Lo and behold it’s stuff we’re not familiar with being here.”
The Makah are an ocean people. For hundreds of years they have made sea-worthy canoes for whaling and fishing in these coastal waters. Today they have the largest tribal fishing fleet in the United States.
Sarff, the tribe’s sustainable resources coordinator, says that with fishing making up the biggest part of the tribe’s economy, people around here are concerned about the tsunami debris.
“Debris on the water and the water column could definitely affect the commercial fishery here, radioactive or not, and we don’t really know what to expect.”
The Makah tribe is working with governmental agencies to put together a response plan to deal with the debris that should start arriving in the coming year.
NOAA will continue to track the debris moving across the Pacific. The agency has also created a smartphone application to report debris and an email address where people can send photos.
Share your experiences as part of EarthFix's Public Insight Network.
Join our Public Insight Network!