Research team studies marine life on Japanese tsunami marine debris

Dave Brooksher

Redwood Times

Two weeks ago, the Redwood Times printed photos of marine debris found on the Lost Coast with Japanese lettering that had been found along the shoreline just south of Petrolia. That article caught the attention of personnel with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who forwarded it to Dr. Jim Carlton, a professor of Marine Sciences at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Carlton subsequently inquired about the possibility of marine animal species that may have been hitching a ride on the debris.

He’s leading a research effort to help positively identify JTMD (Japanese Tsunami Marine Debris), and differentiate it from other marine debris floating in the Pacific. Despite hundreds of reported sightings, so far just over a dozen pieces of debris have been confirmed as having originated from last spring’s tsunami in Japan. Some debris is easily identified due to signage and other markings, but most is ambiguous. Even objects with Japanese writing could be totally unrelated to the tsunami.

In June, a 66-foot dock floated onto the beaches of Newport, Oregon. It’s one of the few pieces of debris to be confirmed as JTMD so far.

"The dock had a plaque on it with a sign that said, ‘I’m from Misawa.’ That helped," said Professor Carlton. "But in the absence of anything that says ‘I’m from Japan,’ we have to use biological evidence to find the point of origin."

Although North Coast residents continue to express concerns about radiation from Fukushima, the real hazard is biological. JTMD frequently carries live specimens of marine animals from Japan -- and some of them are invasives.

"We haven’t seen anything established yet as a result of the JTMD, but what we saw on that dock in Oregon, that was an eyebrow raiser," Carlton said. "That one dock had about a dozen of the most famous invasive species from around the world."

Including high-profile invasives, the dock carried roughly 80 other distinct Japanese species including worms, seastars, shellfish and marine plants, which are not native to this coast. Carlton says that so far there’s no evidence that these species have taken root on nearby beaches.

"But that’s the concern," he added.

There are other concerns. JTMD could pose a significant navigational hazard offshore. The dock that washed up in Oregon was 66 feet long and weighed nearly 200 tons. Any small craft unfortunate enough to collide with it would likely take serious hull damage.

JTMD cleanup is also going to be expensive, and at least part of that expense will likely fall on state and local governments along the west coast. In July, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration awarded $50,000 to the State of California, along with matching grants to Oregon, Washington, Alaska and Hawaii. Then last week Japan announced that their government will contribute $5 million to the cleanup effort -- but it’s unclear how those numbers relate to the overall cost of removing JTMD from U.S. beaches over the next few years or decades.

"We’re not sure how much tonnage of debris is going to land," Carleton explained. "It cost $86K just to get that dock off the beach in Oregon."

The next step is to continue documenting JTMD when it makes landfall, or is observed floating off shore. In this effort, Carlton’s research team relies on help from citizen-scientists in the general public.

"We don’t have a large force of government officials to patrol the beaches, but we have thousands of concerned citizens who are very knowledgeable, very concerned, and very familiar with their beaches," Carlton said.

If you find an object that you suspect may be JTMD, Carlton is asking that you photograph it carefully -- paying particular attention to any writing, signage or signs of marine life.

"If there’s any uncertainty, take a picture. Send it in. We’ll see what it is," Carlton says. "Fortunately, we’re in an era of cell phone technology. Right now for first response, we’re going to rely on good photography. Twenty years ago that would’ve been hard, but now you can email a photo from the beach. And that’s pretty cool."

Readers can report suspected JTMD to NOAA by email, You can also reach Professor James T. Carlton