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Tsunami debris a declining concern

February 3rd, 2012 | Hannah Heimbuch Print this article   Email this article  

In Alaska's Southwest the consensus seems to be that until the seafaring public sees it rolling in on the tide, there won't be much concern over debris from last year's tsunami in Japan.

Henry Mack, mayor of the Alaska Peninsula community of King Cove, said debris is a rare concern in his area and he hasn't heard any increased discussion on the issue. He said cod fishermen and crabbers currently fishing from his area haven't brought back any news of debris sightings.

A Jan. 20 panel discussion in Anchorage covering potential debris issues put several concerns to rest — for the time being — and shed light on some sensitive issues.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski hosted the group, with representatives from various environmental, health and marine debris monitoring organizations.

A good deal of expertise graced the roundtable for the hour, and for the most part unanimously highlighted one thing — there is no current concern about radioactive materials traveling to Alaska waters as a result of the tsunami disaster in Japan last March.

Kristin Ryan from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation cited water and air testing in both Alaska and Japan (including a Dutch Harbor site), and said water tests just 30 miles off Japan's shores showed radiation levels as low as American safe drinking water standards.

"If the water is safe that close to Japan, you can be assured that the water 2,000 miles away in Alaska is most likely unaffected," Ryan said.

Unalaska Chief of Police and acting Port Director Jamie Sunderland echoed that sentiment, saying as far as he knows Unalaska residents are unconcerned about radiation or excess debris showing up.

"I'm not honestly expecting it," he said, though Sunderland was confident that should it become an issue area leaders would be able to handle it.

"As a municipal government, our power to cope with some of those things are really on a local level," he said. "If it were to affect our community, we would take some action."

Beachcombers encouraged to look for, return mementos

Most of the roundtable presenters touched on the human aspect of the debris issue, and the need for a healthy dose of respect when handling or even discussing it.

"This was first and foremost a human tragedy, before it was a marine debris question or science question," said Peter Murphy, Alaska coordinator of the NOAA Marine Debris Program.

He reminded listeners of the tragic scope of the tsunami, which was caused by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and claimed more than 15,000 lives. The wave peaked at 130 feet, and swamped hundreds of square miles. Murphy described the surge as equivalent to about 15 percent of the Anchorage area being inundated with water.

Murkowski and panel members expressed to future beachcombers a reminder that some debris could be mementos of homes and family members lost to the disaster, and those items should be kept safe and reported — along with any dangerous debris.

The Marine Conservation Alliance Foundation at provides details for reporting found debris and returning mementos.

Bulk of debris still far from shore

Much of this debris remains a long way out yet, and has a year or more to spread along the eastern Pacific.

The initial surge of debris Alaska will likely see in coming months will be high windage items — large pieces that have more of their surface area exposed to wind currents than they do to ocean currents.

It's not guaranteed that all marine debris found in the near future will be related to the tsunami.

While some of the flashiest dangers have been dispelled by recent reports, the entire discussion highlights the ever more complicated relationship human communities have with the sea — especially as marine food sources continue to share a coastline with the world of energy technology and exploration.


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