Thursday, February 21, 2013

Japan/US Marine Debris Public Workshop

Japanese Delegates Visit Oregon for Debris Research, Public Debris Workshop 

Last weekend, I was fortunate to be able to attend a jointly-organized US/Japan marine debris public workshop held in Lincoln City, Oregon. The workshop was headed up by members of the Ocean Conservancy, SOLVE, as well as various Japanese institutions, including JEAN (Japan Environmental Action Network), Kids Now, University of Kagashima, and others. The workshop began in the morning with presentations from Japanese delegates regarding the tsunami and its effects on citizens of Japan.

The Japanese delegates are welcomed before the workshops begins

Japan Presents - Environmental Impacts
First, Ms. Azusa Kojima of JEAN spoke about debris impacts. She has traveled both to Hawaii and Oregon in the recent past to examine the effects of tsunami debris reaching coastlines. JEAN is actively pursuing solutions and predictions of debris impacts globally, and has been collaborating with several other organizations.


Next, Mr. Junichuro Noguchi, from the Japanese Ministry of the Environment gave a brief summary of what current research has demonstrated.  He reiterated the fact that approximately 5 million tons of marine debris were washed into the ocean from the tsunami.  However, 70% of this immediately sunk, but 1.5 million tons have been making their way across the Pacific.  Debris can be categorized into different groups based on the way they travel in water- we will likely see these groups wash up at separate times.

Model, showing 4 categories of marine debris floating across the Pacific


 Following this, Mr. Sigeru Fujieda (University of Kagoshima) spoke to us regarding some marine debris projects he is involved with locally in Japan.  Mr. Sigeru has studied marine debris for quite some time now, and has headed several important studies.  One such study has been examining lighters that have washed up on Japan's shore since 2003. Lighters of Japanese or Asian origin generally have inscriptions on them which can be pinpointed to a specific location of origin- much like matchbooks or pens in the US. He has collected over 55,889 lighters from 1,237 Asian sites, and created a map of the paths that these objects generally take.

The cigarette lighter project can be used to predict the flows of debris around Japan and surrounding areas much more accurately than a model could do.

Additionally, Mr. Fujieda has been involved in a project with JEAN at a world heritage site, Shiretoko beach in Hokkaido.  Debris was present before the tsunami, but the types and amount of debris that are washing up are vastly different.  Previously, a major percent of debris (57.2%) is related to food or drink items- plastic wrappers and bottles, which 38.1% is related to cigarettes.  Now, debris on the beach includes things such as housing components and other large objects.

Debris impacts in Shiretoko, Hokkaido
Since 2011, Mr. Fujieda has been working with students from local high schools and universities to conduct debris monitoring projects.  He is finding that in some cases, it is difficult to distinguish tsunami debris from other debris. However he has been modeling drift density of expected items washing across the ocean, and cites small plastic pieces as especially troublesome, with volumes of up to 130,000 items per square kilometer.

Mr. Fujieda acknowledged the magnitude of the issues we are facing, and emphasized international and local cooperation and trust to conquer our obstacles together.

Fostering collaboration

Human Impacts
Mr. Minoru Ito from the environmental organization 'Clean Up Gamo' presented some of the human impacts of the tsunami.  Clean Up Gamo is dedicated to beach cleanup of areas affected by tsunamis, and seeks way to build community after the disaster.

The Gamo tidal wetland was an especially important ecosystem in Japan, which hosted a large variety of wildlife and fish that the locals were reliant upon.  The area lost almost all greenery and means to support wildlife, and a 6-meter hill that had previously been there was completely leveled.

Cleanup Gamo has partnered with JEAN to conduct beach cleanups with the help of local children.  They have also found ways to focus grief with community vigils and celebrations that have kept up a sense of normalcy after the event.

Devastation in Gamo wetland, including destroyed elementary school


Next, Dr. Atsunori Nagayama, the executive director of Miyagi Disaster Relief Volunteer Center presented on his organization- Kids Now- which focuses on the impacts of the disaster on local children, and giving them outlets for play, hope, and community building.

Dr. Nagayama stated that in the area of Miyagi, 1000 homes were leveled due to the disaster- this translates to 3,000 people losing their  homes. Many organizations reached out to help, and a local soup kitchen sprung up that has fed over 5,000 people daily (over 200,000 people total), and distributed supplies to those in need.
Photo of Arahama area BEFORE tsunami

The Center also hosted a beach cleanup on Fukanuma beach to get people involved.  Dr. Nagayama emphasized the fact that the Japanese people involved in the disaster lost everything - their homes, their belongings, and their loved ones. Most surprisingly, these people felt a sense of guilt that their debris was washing to the US and truly wish to reach out to help.

Arahama area during tsunami inundation

I found this especially humbling and problematic, as Japan has in fact supplied more for debris cleanup than the US has granted locally.  It struck me that for people that have lost everything, a main concern of theirs rests on our shores.  I only hope that we continue to reach out and help, and reassure the victims that none of this is their fault, and it is indeed our duty to reach out our hand in aid.

Arahama area AFTER tsunami- wide spread devastation


Ms. Rika Yamamoto of Peace Winds Japan presented to us next.  Peace Winds is an international organization whose primary goal is to reduce human suffering, including countries such as Haiti, Sumatra and Africa.

Ms. Yamamoto and her colleagues experienced the earthquake on the 7th floor of their office building, safely inshore from the tsunami.  As soon as they were able they ascertained the source of the quake as near Tohuku.

The next day, Peace Winds workers dispatched help to Tohuku and found a desperate situation- people had no homes, no water, and no electricity in cold and snowy weather.  They distributed satellite phones so people could at least call and tell their families they were okay.

Ms. Rika Yamamoto

Emergency supplies were distributed, and as Ms. Yamamoto noted, most were donated from private individuals or companies.  As people moved into temporary housing, essential supplies such as bedding, heating, and kitchen basics were distributed to help people start over.

Peace Winds Japan has been working with children impacted by the disaster- they also lost homes, family members, and parents.  She says that the psychological impacts of such disasters are yet unknown but a means to build community, feel safe, express emotions and play are all very important. Peace Winds also helped to keep the local Tohuku festival on track soon after the disaster, emphasizing that a sense of normalcy is very important to people.

She stated that the largest concern of the people of Tohuku is that even though they are far from recovery, they feel the global media has largely moved on, and they truly fear being forgotten in their struggle before they are able to fully heal.


Lastly, Ms. Satoko Seino of Kyusha University took the floor, presenting on Misawa (the origin port of the docks) and status of things after the tsunami.

Dr. Seino showed a light bulb from Misawa, found by an Oregon local on a beach.  She explained that Misawa is a famous squid fishing community, and that the Misawa docks were only constructed in 2007.  The primarily-fished species was Todarodes pacificus, or the common squid. After the tsunami, the local economy was devastated as much of the port was destroyed, and biological toxins have polluted local fish supplies.

Dr. Seino showing the squid boat lightbulb- likely from Misawa, washed up recently on an Oregon shore

Dr. Seino noted that most fishermen are now actually employed gathering biological samples of fish, rather than fish to be consumed as oils, mercury and toxins have tainted food supplies and local ecosytems. Much of the debris  found locallly is coated in oils and therefore very dangerous.  Due to lack of local protocols, many citizens were cleaning up potentially hazardous debris with their bare hands.

Additionally, the long-traditional sustainable practice of gathering seaweed by local Tohuku communities was similarly devastated.  In squid fishing villages, the women would historically gather and ferment seaweed as a common food source from the intertidal zone. However, this natural resource is now fouled and mostly gone.

Misawa Docks prior to tsunami

 The US Presents - Environmental Impacts

After Dr. Seino presented, US representatives took over to present what they have found regarding marine debris.  First, the Oregon Department of Fisheries and Wildlife gave a short synopsis on the Agate beach dock that washed ashore last summer.  They reiterated that the dock alone cost $85,000 to remove- exceeding the US Federal Government's cleanup grant by $35,000 dollars.

The dock took one full week to cut up and haul off, and was fortunately washed ashore in an accessible area, unlike Washington's dock.

Oregon has seen the number of folks interested in cleanups rising- there were more than 20 small beach cleanups hosted last summer on Oregon's shores, which is three times the usual number.  The average number of volunteers per cleanup has doubled from 17 to 34.

Beach cleanups have been organized by a variety of volunteer organizations including ODFW, OPR, Oregon Shores Coalition, SOLVE, Sea Grant, Surfrider Foundation, and Washed Away.  SOLVE has distributed more than $10,000 worth of bags to 15 designated cleanup stations in Oregon's state parks and beaches.

The ODFW has also created a 211 calling system where citizens can report tsunami debris (or call 1-800-SAFENET).  They have taken more than 300 calls since July, but about half of these are normal (non-tsunami) debris.


Next up was Nick Mallo, of the Ocean Conservancy.  Nick has been involved with various debris cleanup efforts and workshops regarding JTMD.  He emphasized that Japanese Tsunami Marine Debris is in fact a small part of a much bigger picture- marine debris is a long-standing and daunting problem.  However, the tsunami has both amplified public interest and also the urgency of the matter.

The Ocean Conservancy is working with local Japan organizations to cooperate in approaches.  They are also striving to build public support and education through their webpage and resources.  They have also posted a nice debris ID sheet for those who are interested.

The Ocean Conservancy is planning to host several educational webinars for the public on this topic.  They have also provided a resource for those who wish to report debris to the Conservancy's International Coast Cleanup database.  Simply Twitter hashtag #ICC with a photo of debris and information on where you found it.


Briana Goodwin of Oregon's SOLVE Network presented on the work of SOLVE in terms of debris cleanup.

Briana emphasized the collaborative work of the Oregon Marine Debris Team ( which includes Surfrider Foundation, Washed Ashore, Sea Grant, SOLVE, and Oregon Shores.  OMDT is hosting 15 local workshops on marine debris, which can be found at:  SOLVE is still trying to decide how best to coordinate cleanups and reporting of debris along Oregon's shores.


 Lastly, Dr. Steven Rumrill of the Oregon Shellfish Program spoke regarding the rapid response team which scoured the dock that washed ashore on Agate beach.

The Agate beach dock floated an amazing distance of nearly 5,000 miles in only 451 days- meaning it had to have floated at 11 miles per hour across the Pacific. Once onshore, the dock had nearly 90,000 visitors and tourists. However, the dock was so large it was certainly a hazard and would have become an eyesore.  Additionally, it hosted both accessible and inaccessible species that were potentially invasive.

The dock was covered with approximately 120 species of marine species, including 90 invertebrate species and 30 seaweed species. Two of these species are listed on the Global Invasive Species Database as being in the World's Worst 100 Invasive Species - Wakame seaweed (Undaria pinnatifida) and the northern Pacific sea star (Asterias amurensis).

List of major species found on dock

The dock was also covered in a variety of non-invasive pelagic species found across the Pacific, including Lepas anatifera, the pelagic gooseneck barnacle, and also whale barnacles.  Current research has categorized 117 of the species thus far occurring on JTMD as non-invasive, with 11 known invasive species.

The ODFW team removed 4,620 pounds of organisms, which took 3 days of work and 13 people. Areas that were hard to reach were burned with a propane torch, and all organisms were buried away from the water line.

Dr. Rumrill also briefly discussed the boat that recently washed up on Gleneden Beach.  He noted that Japan reported 506 vessels missing after the tsunami, including small skiffs, large sport boats, and large commercial vessels. Locations of most of these are still unknown.

If you find debris, you are encouraged to take a photo and report the item and location to:


And so, after a day full of information, the workshop adjourned.  I was very much struck by the sense of cooperation, humility, and authenticity of the delegates.  The workshop highlighted many positive aspects of this disaster- volunteers, collaboration, and a positive attitude at problems presented. However, it also highlighted the fact that there is much more down the pipeline that we will have to deal with as a nation, but also as a global community.

The Japanese people are still struggling in their efforts to regain their lives, and as we prepare for debris to wash ashore, it will hopefully serve as a reminder to those who lost everything.   If you can, please consider volunteering locally, internationally, or donating to a charitable foundation to help those in need.  After all, this disaster may very well repeat itself on the opposite side of the Pacific.

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