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Tsunami Debris and Marine Debris in Alaska

The earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on March 11, 2011 claimed at least 16,000 lives and swept an estimated 5 million tons of debris into the Pacific Ocean. While 70 percent of the debris sank off the coast of Japan, as much as 1.5 million tons of debris are moving across the Pacific Ocean with the winds and the currents. Tsunami-generated debris began arriving on the coasts of the United States and Canada in late 2011. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) expects debris to continue to arrive for several years, although there are no reliable estimates as to how much tsunami debris will ultimately reach Alaska.

Tsunami debris consists of everything imaginable that was washed away from the large urbanized coastal communities that were destroyed by the earthquake and resulting tsunami. The debris being found on U.S and Canadian shores consists of bottles, jugs, polystyrene foam, building fragments, boats, plastics, wood, docks, ropes, and buoys. Most of the debris is inert material which is neither chemically or biologically reactive and will not decompose, although it can still pose environmental risks. Monitoring to date by most federal and state agencies confirms that there is very little risk that tsunami marine debris will contain radioactive waste (see Radioactivity in Marine Debris for additional information).

Following the tsunami, significant increases in marine debris have been noted on the Alaska coastline from Kodiak through Prince William Sound and Southeast, although “confirmed” tsunami debris items in Alaska are rare, due to the rigid NOAA guidelines for confirming debris as being from the tsunami. 

With federal, state, and local partners, NOAA is leading the effort to collect data, assess tsunami debris, and reduce its impact on natural resources and coastal communities. Governor Parnell designated the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) as the lead agency for coordinating with NOAA and other federal and state agencies to address tsunami marine debris in Alaska.

Since 2013, DEC has been managing Alaska's share of the tsunami debris cleanup funds donated to the United States and Canada by the Government of Japan. Alaska is using those funds to update the shoreline survey and to fund tsunami marine debris cleanup operations throughout the state in the 2014 and 2015 field seasons.

For further information on DEC's role in the response to tsunami debris, contact:

Dorothy Melambianakis
(907) 269-6066


DEC Aerial Survey & Interactive Map

Marine Debris Interactive Map

Images from the aerial survey and from individual cleanup operations which show marine debris density, location, and type are found on this map.


Marine Debris in General

Marine debris has been washing ashore in Alaska for decades, so not all marine debris in Alaska is from the tsunami. Debris is either land-based (trash or items that deliberately or inadvertently end up in the water, including plastics of all kinds) or ocean-based (trash or items tossed overboard or lost at seas,  abandoned fishing line, gear, nets, and buoys, and the contents of lost shipping containers). Most marine debris, whether from the tsunami and from other sources, is not hazardous. However, even inert debris – that is, waste which is neither chemically or biologically reactive and will not decompose - can still pose environmental risks. Go to Polystyrene Foam Contamination for information on it.

The Spill Prevention and Response (SPAR) division of DEC assists in cleanup efforts related to petroleum products and hazardous material debris. Should large quantities of chemical debris wash ashore on Alaska's beaches, DEC will initiate cleanup efforts to protect human health and the environment. If cleanup efforts generate a large volume of debris, DEC will assist with development of disposal plans and permitting of solid waste disposal facilities.

Hazardous marine debris should be reported to:

Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation
Spill Prevention and Response
Southcentral (907) 269-3063
Southeast (907) 465-5340


Marine Debris Reporting and Beach Cleanup Organizations

Significant debris sightings at sea or on shore may be reported to:

NOAA Marine Debris Program
(206) 526-4661

When reporting marine debris, it is helpful to provide the date, time, location, and description of the debris. Include pictures, if possible. Numerous Alaska non-profit organizations in Alaska accept reports of marine debris and perform marine debris cleanup around the state. These organizations work in collaboration with the State and NOAA. They receive funding from NOAA's Marine Debris Program, the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, and other sources. Contact information for several of the Alaska non-profit organizations that are active in marine debris cleanup and prevention efforts can be found at Beach Cleanup Organizations.

Survey of Marine Debris in Alaska

Since the tsunami, observers in Prince William Sound, Kodiak, and Southeast have reported significant increases in the volume of high-windage debris, including blocks of polystyrene foam, bottles, building materials, floats and buoys.  These observations are consistent with NOAA's prediction that lightweight items that float higher in the water would arrive first. Heavier items, such as dimensional lumber found in typical Japanese construction, have been observed in 2014.

NOAA and DEC have conducted vessel and air coastline surveys to determine the extent, location, and potential impact of the tsunami debris.  These surveys are used to determine where marine debris cleanup operations should be staged in order to maximize the effectiveness of the limited funds available for cleanup. A summary of survey activity can be found at Survey of Alaska's Beaches.


Polystyrene Foam Contamination

Polystyrene foam (also known as Styrofoam) is used in marine-related items such as buoys and floats and is also commonly found in building materials and home products. Polystyrene foam is a non-biodegradable product that can remain in the environment for years. It can break down into smaller pieces and be mistaken for food by fish, bears, and seabirds. It is not easily digested so it tends to accumulate in the digestive tract of the animal who consumes it. Ingestion can be fatal as is causes the animals to feel full and stop eating, which leads to emaciation and death from starvation. Foam particles can also cause intestinal blockage.


Radioactivity in Marine Debris

It is highly unlikely that tsunami debris has been affected by radiation from the Fukushima nuclear reactor. The debris was already in the ocean, miles away from the reactor, before the radioactive water leak developed. Recent inspections of Alaskan beaches have found no marine debris with levels of radiation above normal.

For additional information on radioactivity and radiation testing, visit: www.epa.gov/japan2011 or contact the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) spokesperson Molly Hooven at (202) 564-2313.


Invasive Species in Marine Debris

Another area of concern is marine‐origin debris such as docks, piers, buoys, vessels, aquaculture floats, and other harbor items that were covered by local plant or animal organisms and then washed away by the tsunami. When these attached organisms reach coastlines outside their native habitat, they may become invasive and destructive to local fish, wildlife, and plant species.

Marine invasive species pose a serious threat to Alaskan marine ecology and species by competing with native fish and wildlife for food and habitat. While not all nonnative species are destructive, most often they exist at the expense of native fish and wildlife.

A handout with photos and information about potential invasive species, Key Aquatic Invasive Species Watch, is available by the AGF&G. Sightings of marine debris that contains invasive species should be reported to Tammy Davis, Alaska Department of Fish & Game (ADF&G), at (907) 465-6183 or tammy.davis@alaska.gov. See their Standard Protocol for Collection and Preservation of Non-Native Species from Marine Debris handout for information on collecting and preserving specimens.


Permits Required for Cleanup Activities

Permits or consents to operate on land while performing debris-related activities may be required by landowners or land resource managers.  In critical habitat areas, or where endangered or protected species are present, federal permits may also be required.  Information regarding federal permits and other federal responses to debris-related activities can be found at http://marinedebris.noaa.gov/about-us.

The State of Alaska owns the intertidal areas and some uplands. Prior to participating in cleanup operations, it may be necessary to obtain a state permits. Before engaging in any cleanup activities, contact the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). More information about the generally allowed uses can be found on the DNR website at http://dnr.alaska.gov/mlw/factsht/gen_allow_use.pdf.



The State of Alaska works with local and federal partners to assess the impact of marine debris to the Alaskan environment. Although DEC is designated as the lead agency for addressing marine debris in Alaska, other state departments and federal agencies have specific support roles. See our Federal and Local Partner Contacts document to learn more about these partnerships and their roles in marine debris removal.

In addition to local partnerships, the State of Alaska is also collaborating with other Pacific states and British Columbia on marine debris issues. Governor Parnell has joined other West Coast governors in a letter to President Obama requesting adequate federal funding for marine debris cleanup (link).

The Government of Japan has also offered resources describing the current status and Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s) regarding tsunami marine debris:

  General questions:

Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation
555 Cordova Street
Anchorage, AK 99501
Phone: (907) 269-7620, Fax: (907) 269-7510
TDD: (800) 770-8973

Alaska Department of Natural Resources
550 W. 7th Ave, Suite 1260
Anchorage, AK 99501
Phone: (907) 269-8400, Fax: (907) 269-8901
TTY: (907) 269-8411