Japan Tsunami Marine Debris

The devastating tsunami that hit Japan in March of 2011 destroyed a vast amount of people’s property and much of the coastal infrastructure. The Japanese government estimated that the tsunami swept about 5 million tons of debris into the ocean, but 70 percent of that sank off shore, leaving 1.5 million tons floating soon after the event. It is unknown how much of this debris remains floating in the ocean today. Patches of debris that formed soon after the event dispersed over time, broken apart by wind and waves. A consensus exists among scientists and experts that the presence of radioactive materials in the JTMD is highly unlikely. Some debris in West Coast states has been tested, including items known to be from the tsunami, and no radioactive contamination above normal levels was found.

It is important to remember though, that marine debris is a large problem for much of the Pacific Region even before the tsunami in Japan. And debris from the Japanese tsunami is adding to the debris that washes up on our shorelines every day, hence not every piece of debris found on U.S. shores is from the tsunami. If you do suspect that a piece of debris may be JTMD, report it to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Debris Program at DisasterDebris@noaa.gov, please use discretion when reporting. To stay up to date on this issue, check out the NOAA Japan Tsunami Marine Debris Program and Japan Tsunami Marine Debris Joint Information Center.  According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Japan’s nuclear emergency presents no danger to California. California Department of Public Health is working closely with state and federal partners, including NRC, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Energy, FEMA Region IX, and the California Emergency Management Agency (CalEMA). California has a plan of response for radiological emergencies if one were to arise. Plans include the Nuclear Radiological Emergency Program and the National Response Framework.  Learn more about the radiation from Fukushima by reading Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s FAQs here.

What is the State of California doing?

The California Emergency Management Agency (CalEMA), CA Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA), California Coastal Commission, CA State Lands Commission, CA Natural Resources Agency, Ocean Protection Council, CA Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFG), and California Volunteers are all working with the federal government and other state agencies to ensure that if Japan tsunami marine debris washes ashore:

  • California citizens and their coastal environment are protected,
  • Local and state agencies are well-prepared and protocols are in place, and
  • Californians can get involved through shoreline debris cleanup and monitoring.

CalEMA is in charge of emergency management and has developed a Concept of Operations [PDF] to address the marine debris from the tsunami. This plan lays out responsibilities of federal, state and local entities involved, and the protocols for response. Working closely with Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Alaska, British Columbia, and federal agencies, CalEMA and CalEPA have also launched the Japan Tsunami Marine Debris Joint Information Center. The purpose of this center is to provide access to official information, to answer to frequently asked questions, and to disseminate other resources regarding the anticipated increase in ocean debris along the coastlines of the Pacific Ocean.

The Coastal Commission and California Volunteers are agencies leading the effort to conduct shoreline cleanups. A two-year West Coast shoreline monitoring project to determine JTMD baseline is currently taking place involving the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Coastal Commission, and non-profit organizations. Another concern that JTMD brings to California’s coastal waters is the introduction of non-native, invasive species. DFW will assist with the prompt and safe removal of debris with attached marine life in order to help minimize the likelihood that these alien species will establish along the CA coastline. The State Lands Commission invasive species program will advise invasive species management, when needed.

Additional state agency resources on Japan Tsunami Marine Debris:

What is the federal government doing?

NOAA is leading the efforts to respond, collect data, and assess JTMD with the help of other federal and state agencies, and partners. NOAA has a representative assigned to CalEMA for JTMD coordination and expertise. The US Coast Guard is responsible for intercepting and handling marine debris that poses a hazard to navigation or is a pollution risk at sea . The US Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for responding to hazardous materials from the high tide line shoreward within federal waters.

What should you do if you see Japan Tsunami Marine Debris?

JTMD that you may encounter can vary, and includes things such as fishing nets, lumber, plastics, household items, foam pieces, and possibly chemical or oil drums. So far, items that are confirmed to have come from the Japan tsunami include vessels, buoys, sports balls, a floating pier, and a motorcycle in a container. The number one thing is to be safe. Use common sense and follow general safety guidelines:

  • If you do not know what an item is, do not touch it.
  • If it appears hazardous, do not touch the item or attempt to move it and contact appropriate local authorities.
    • Call the California State Warning Center (CalEMA): 1-800-852-7550
    • Call National Response Center: 1-800-424-8802
  • Pick up small items like bottles or foam pieces and throw them away. Be safe handling the debris and always watch out for sharp edges.
    • Whenever possible, recycle. Check out CalRecycle’s website to get more information.

    Tsunami Debris Field Guide

NOAA has asked that marine debris items suspected to be related to the tsunami be reported via email to DisasterDebris@noaa.gov. When reporting tsunami debris, make sure you include location, date and time found, photos, and any relevant descriptions. Not all debris found on U.S. shorelines is from Japan or the tsunami, so please use discretion.

There’s a variety of ways you can make a difference in the fight against marine debris! One way is to get involved with the Coastal Commission’s annual Coastal Clean Up Day in September. Check out our marine debris threats page for more ideas.

Thank You Ocean Podcast on Japan Tsunami Marine Debris