Trash Free Seas

Video: Cleaning Up Tsunami Debris in Alaska

Removing tsunami debris from remote Alaskan coasts helps promote ecosystem resilience.

In addition to surveying tsunami debris in Japan and conducting baseline monitoring on the West Coast, Ocean Conservancy is committed to helping remove any tsunami debris that washes ashore on beaches.

Ocean Conservancy Arctic Program Director Andrew Hartsig recently participated in a series of beach cleanups near the coastal town of Sitka, in southeast Alaska. Marine Conservation Alliance Foundation and Sitka Sound Science Center were the driving forces behind organizing those cleanups, while Holland America Line provided the volunteers and Allen Marine provided the boat transportation and staff support to and from the cleanup site.

Marine debris is a big problem, even in remote places like the coast of Alaska. Debris can injure people, entangle marine mammals, enter the food web and threaten the overall ecosystem. Removing debris from beaches reduces these threats and promotes ecosystem resilience.

“Dealing with marine debris in Alaska is huge not only because of the scale but also because of the fact that it is relatively inaccessible,” Hartsig said. “So if we can take some of the stress off the ecosystem by removing marine debris, it will help the ecosystem deal with all of the other stresses going on.”

Scientists predict that debris from the Japan tsunami could be hitting U.S. shores for several years to come, and the debris most likely to hit first is surface-drifting debris – or debris that is moved easily by wind.

During recent cleanups in Alaska, that’s exactly what was found: chunks of lightweight foamed plastic and foam insulation. While this type of debris is often found on Alaska’s beaches, the size and amount of it have increased drastically in the last year. On one particular beach near Gore Point, Alaska, a 93-fold increase in foamed plastic (by weight) was recorded between pre- and post-tsunami cleanups.

“After spending a long day pulling debris from logs, digging it out of sand and hauling it into piles for pickup, the most disheartening thing to see is a section of beach so covered with small bits of foamed plastic that you know it’s hopeless to try to pick it all up,” said Patrick Chandler, Special Programs Coordinator for the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies and the Alaska State International Coastal Cleanup Coordinator.

Tsunami debris like the large amounts of foamed plastic found in Alaska is part of the larger problem of ocean trash – and the truth is that a tsunami’s worth of human-generated trash hits our shores every year.

For more than 26 years, Ocean Conservancy has been mobilizing the world’s largest volunteer effort to clean up this trash. As part of our data collection process during cleanups this year, we will be asking volunteers to note any potential tsunami debris they find and report it to NOAA so that scientists can get a better understanding of how the debris is moving across the ocean and its potential impacts.

Help Keep Our Ocean Clean

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Video: Monitoring Tsunami Debris on the West Coast

Baseline monitoring efforts will help us understand the effects of tsunami debris on the West Coast.

Video: Surveying Tsunami Debris in Japan

The tsunami’s devastation is still evident in Japan as recovery efforts continue.

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