Debris from the tsunami that struck Japan two years ago is building up on West Coast beaches, with everything from soccer balls to floating docks drifting ashore from Alaska to California.
Peter Barratt, operations manager for West Coast Helicopters, has been looking down on British Columbia's rugged Pacific coastline for much of the past 30 years – and he has never seen as much garbage as he did on a recent reconnaissance flight along northwest Vancouver Island with Will Soltau, of the Living Oceans Society.
In a flight that took them along the remote outer coast, the two men said they saw garbage scattered on almost every beach for more than 100 kilometres. Mr. Barratt, a pilot with decades of experience on the coast, said it is clear large amounts of debris from the tsunami, which hit Japan in March, 2011, are coming ashore. He said large blocks of white Styrofoam are easy to spot from the air, but there is a lot of other less visible debris down there, scattered in with the drift logs.
"I think there's three to four times the amount of the high floating stuff, like big chunks of Styrofoam, and then five to 10 times the amount of smaller debris," said Mr. Barratt, a co-founder of West Coast Helicopters, based in Port McNeill.
"Of course there's always debris on the beaches," he added. "But I dropped down … and, holy crap, all of a sudden you see all this stuff. You can tell the stuff that's been there for awhile because it's dull and faded. The new stuff is shiny, and there's a lot of it."
Mr. Barratt said much of the debris is probably too small to be cleaned up, but he thinks something should be done to get the big blocks of Styrofoam off the beaches. "That Styrofoam is disgusting," he said. "I'm sure some of that … you could haul it out of there."
The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration states on its website that the public should be cautious in handling any debris that might be contaminated by chemicals or other toxic compounds, but radioactivity (released when the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was damaged) is not of concern.
"There is no reason to avoid beaches," states NOAA. "Radiation experts believe it is highly unlikely any debris is radioactive, and the debris is not in a mass."
Mr. Soltau, manager of Living Ocean's Clear the Coast marine debris program, said flotsam from the tsunami will be drifting ashore in B.C. for several more months. "I expect the worst isn't over yet," he said. "Based on what the oceanographers say, the debris will continue to come ashore … through next summer."
Mr. Soltau said the helicopter flight was an eye-opener for him in terms of how much debris has already come ashore.
"Once the weather starts to improve we hope to get some eyes on the ground and do a more detailed analysis," he said. "When you start walking among the driftwood and see all the flip-flops, the running shoes, the bits of broken-down plastic … it strikes you, the impact humans have had ."
Mr. Soltau said on one rocky outcrop the helicopter flight located an overturned Japanese fishing skiff, heavily encrusted with gooseneck barnacles, and nearby were two life jackets with Japanese writing on them.
"When we landed to examine the skiff it left me with a different feeling," he said. "I couldn't stop thinking about all the lives that were lost."
The Living Oceans Society is encouraging beachcombers and others on the waterfront to document the locations of tsunami debris and is organizing volunteer cleanup drives.
The B.C. government is tracking tsunami debris in a co-ordinated effort with the states of Alaska, Washington, Oregon and California. An estimated 1.5 million tonnes of debris is eventually expected to hit the West Coast. One of the largest pieces was a 185-ton, 20-metre floating dock, which came ashore near Forks, Wash.