By Mary Kauffman, SitNews
June 18, 2012
Over the 10-day cruise, the team will survey specific beaches of Southeast Alaska from Dixon Entrance to Cape Spencer, covering approximately 78 kilometers of shoreline across 889 kilometers of outside coast.
“We doubt that the peak of tsunami debris has arrived, so this is a preliminary assessment to get an idea of the scope of what is arriving here right now,” said NOAA’s Jeep Rice from the Auke Bay Lab in Juneau. “We are also keeping a sharp lookout to see if there is anything chemically or physically dangerous that needs immediate action. This scouting trip will help inform future cleanup efforts.”
Rice said other locations further north and west in Alaska will be surveyed later this summer to include a wide swath of Alaska coastline all the way out to Adak. All human-related marine debris will be enumerated and cataloged so scientists can assess their spatial and temporal distribution. Tsunami debris surveys will be conducted periodically throughout the next couple years.
On May 17, 2012, U.S. Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK) chaired a subcommittee hearing that included testimony from the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The goal of of the hearing was to get answers to federal government plans for responding to tsunami debris fouling the shorelines of Alaska and the West Coast. The hearing included testimony from David M. Kennedy, Assistant Administrator, NOAA’s National Ocean Service; and Rear Admiral Cari Thomas, Director of Response Policy for the U.S. Coast Guard.
“There’s three billion pounds of mostly plastic trash which will flood into our inter-tidal ecosystems and the leading edge of this tide is already here,” Begich said in his opening statement at the May 17th hearing.
Last month's hearing was scheduled by Begich in response to marine debris from last year’s tragic tsunami in northern Japan which swept an estimated five million tons of debris out to sea. It is estimated 70 percent sank off shore, leaving up to 1.5 million tons (3 billion pounds) of debris still afloat.
To fund the extensive and expensive clean-up, following the hearing Begich sent a letter to President Obama requesting $45 million to be made available this year and next to community groups to execute the debris clean-up.
“In Alaska we are already seeing the debris beginning to wash up on our beaches and we know this is just the beginning of a slow-motion environmental disaster that will unfold over the next several years,” Begich stated in his May letter to President Obama. “Unlike many disasters which catch us by surprise, we have known this debris was coming since shortly after the tsunami.”
Hearing tsunami debris concerns rising among Alaska’s fishermen, U. S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) also reached out to NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, pushing for information on the status of ongoing prevention and monitoring efforts. In a letter written in May 8, 2012 to Lubchenco, Senator Murkowski pointed out that extra funding is provided in the FY2013 Senate Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations bill to track and mitigate debris from the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Murkowski sits on that subcommittee and works to fund programs critical to Alaska’s fisheries.
A derelict Japanese squid boat appeared off the coast of Southeast Alaska and was recently sunk by the Coast Guard as a hazard to navigation. Among other debris a Harley Davidson motorcycle recently washed up in British Columbia.
Although this is the first NOAA survey in Alaska specifically for tsunami debris, NOAA has been conducting marine debris surveys along the Alaska coast every 5-10 years since standard survey protocols were developed by Ted Merrell at Auke Bay Lab in the 1970s, meaning the agency has nearly 40-years of data on marine debris in Southeast Alaska.
Auke Bay Lab’s Jacek Maselko, the chief scientist for the survey, is leading a team that also includes Mark Hoover from Auke Bay Lab, Jason Rolfe from the NOAA Marine Debris Division, NOAA contractor Marty Myers from Juneau and University of Alaska student Derek Chamberlin.
NOAA’s Marine Debris Program provided funding for this survey, which will wrap-up June 24 in Juneau. The NOAA Marine Debris Program asks that members of the public visit their website on the Japanese tsunami marine debris to learn about procedures when they encounter marine debris.
If one finds tsunami debris, NOAA asks that it be reported to: DisasterDebris@noaa.go.
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