As they kept one eye on Japanese ceremonies honouring thousands of people killed in last year's earthquake and tsunami, residents of the Vancouver Island community of Tofino also watched the shore, where debris believed to be from the disaster continues to wash up and recently prompted a plea from consular officials.
Tofino mayor Perry Schmunk met with the Japanese consul-general just over one week ago. Mr. Schmunk said the consul-general, who is based in Vancouver, had a request for residents and visitors of Tofino, as well as nearby communities.
"Over the next year or two, we are inevitably going to see more stuff come ashore," Mr. Schmunk said in an interview. "In the event that it is from Japan, that it is traceable in any way – like a unique mark, name, photo – his message to us is that they will make every effort possible to get this material back to the people affected by the event."
Debris believed to be connected to the disaster has been washing up on Tofino's shores since late last year. Lumber and bottles featuring Japanese characters were among the first items to be spotted, and the mayor himself soon found a sock and toothbrush with similar markings.
Last week, a large grey barrel was discovered on the sand. The Japanese lettering indicated it once held some type of seasoning.
A connection between the items and the tsunami has not been confirmed, a fact the mayor is quick to point out. None of the items discovered so far is believed to be of great significance.
Terry Lake, B.C.'s Environment Minister, said the province in the past few weeks made preliminary contact with the Japanese consulate about the tsunami debris.
"We're working with the Japanese consul-general to make sure that we have processes in place that are sensitive to the people that did lose their property," Mr. Lake said. "Some of these will have high emotional value. We want to make sure that we handle any debris with sensitivity, to make sure that people in Japan who have lost these items will feel they're being well looked after by people finding it."
The province has also been in touch with the consul-general about what to do in the unlikely event human remains wash ashore.
The consul-general could not be reached for comment Sunday.
Provincial and federal officials have formed a tsunami debris committee to ensure all ministries and governments understand their roles and responsibilities. The committee is also working with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Mr. Lake said the committee is still in its early days, but anyone finding debris that appears to be valuable can report the finding through the provincial Ministry of Environment's website. That information was only posted online Friday, and Mr. Lake said no reports have yet come in.
A protocol on how to handle the material has not been established.
Mr. Lake said the vast majority of debris is expected to arrive in 2013, though that doesn't mean some of it can't wash up sooner. Just how much will reach B.C. or U.S. shores remains to be seen.
Because of the nuclear accidents that occurred in Japan last March, samples of the debris will be tested for radioactive contamination. The committee has said the risk of contamination is slight. Testing methods – as with many other elements in the Canadian response – are still being determined.
"From everything I know, we're in uncharted territory," Mr. Schmunk said.