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Tsunami Debris and Other Marine Debris in Alaska

The March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan claimed nearly 16,000 lives. Waves rushed up to six miles inland through populated areas before receding. Many people lost their homes and personal property. The Government of Japan estimates that 5 million tons of debris was swept into the Pacific Ocean, about 70 percent sank right away, leaving 1.5 million tons floating off the coast.

This debris is composed of materials found in urban areas, including bottles, jugs, Styrofoam, building fragments, boats, plastics, wood, docks, ropes, buoys and other items. There are no estimates of how much debris is still floating today or how much could reach Alaska's shores. There are confirmed reports of tsunami debris having already reached the coasts of Alaska, British Columbia, Washington and Oregon.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) Marine Debris Program has the mission to address marine debris impacts through research, prevention and reduction. Governor Parnell has designated the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) as the lead agency for the state in coordinating with NOAA and other federal and state agencies addressing marine debris in Alaska. NOAA's models show that debris will reach U.S. and Canadian shores throughout the next several years. Not all marine debris that reaches Alaska is from the Japan tsunami. Marine debris from a variety of sources washes onto Alaska shores every day.

Most marine debris found on Alaska's beaches before the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami was non-hazardous material. Only a very small percentage (estimated to be a very small percentage, based on actual findings to date) contained petroleum products or other potentially hazardous materials. Even though marine debris reaching Alaska's shores is likely to continue to be mostly inert material, it can still pose environmental risks. As described below, federal and state agencies see very little risk that any of the marine debris in Alaska will contain radioactive waste. Monitoring to date has confirmed this.

NOAA and state agencies are working closely with each other, local authorities and interested organizations to systematically survey and assess marine debris arriving in Alaska. This is necessary to prioritize work that should be done before winter storms make it more difficult to collect debris and for longer term planning.

Survey of Alaska's Beaches

Marine Debris on Alaska's beaches is not a new phenomenon. It is often not possible to discern whether debris on a beach is from the March 2011 tsunami or some other source. Reports from people who often visit the coast and beaches around Southeast Alaska and Prince William Sound have been reporting an increase in the amount of debris, including blocks of Styrofoam, bottles, floats and buoys. This is consistent with NOAA predictions that items floating higher in the water are more impacted by wind and could reach the shores of North America before items that rest deeper in the water.

NOAA and DEC have several projects underwary to better identify and assess the impacts of tsunami marine debris in Alaska, these include:

  • NOAA Vessel Survey:

    NOAA has conducted marine debris surveys along Alaska's coast every 5-10 years since the 1970s, but they began a routine survey targeted at evaluating the impact of tsunami debris in June 2012. NOAA scientists left Ketchikan aboard a charter vessel to begin a 10 day cruise along Alaska's coastline from Dixon Entrance to Cape Spencer. NOAA reportedly recorded debris at 36 sites on 9 different islands but could not confirm whether the debris was tsunami related at this time. They plan to continue surveying throughout the summer, going north and west up Alaska's coastline. NOAA will continue to compare the marine debris found with past surveys to refine predictions about the long term impacts of tsunami debris along the coast.
  • DEC Aerial Survey:

    DEC contracted with Airborne Technologies, Inc. (ATI) to do a systematic and complete aerial survey for Japanese tsunami debris along the Alaskan coastline. ATI flies a C-185 aircraft at an altitude of 500-1000 feet mounted with high definition video cameras and high resolution still cameras. Beginning in July 2012, ATI took aerial images of the shoreline to determine the impact of tsunami debris along the Alaskan coastline. The survey included coverage from Cape Muzon, the southern boundary point between Alaska and Canada, to Cape Spencer, and along the exposed beach area northward to Cape Suckling. From there, ATI has surveyed areas of Kayak Island, Hinchinbrook Island, Montague Island and exposed capes and points to Gore Point. The survey continued southwest to the Barren Islands, exposed points of Afognak and Kodiak Islands, Cape Douglas and southward along the Alaska Peninsula to Cold Bay.
    DEC Aerial Survey & Interactive Map

    Click to Open Map

    Marine Debris Interactive Map

    This interactive map contains the results of the 2012 aerial survey. Included on this map is information on severity of debris along with high resolution photos of shoreline impact. Several organizations have also contributed photos of cleanup activities along Alaska's shores. The map also contains overlays of wetlands, critical habitat areas, seafood processing facilities, and much more.

Beach Cleanup Organizations

There are a number of organizations in Alaska already conducting beach cleanups. These groups are independent of the State of Alaska but work in collaboration with the State and with NOAA. These organizations receive grants and other funds through NOAA's Marine Debris Program, the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council and other sources.

  • Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies
  • Gulf of Alaska Keeper
  • Island Charters
  • Island Trails Network
  • Alaska Marine Stewardship Foundation
  • Sitka Sound Science Center
  • Yakutat Salmon Board

In addition, NOAA is looking for volunteers to gather shoreline data. One way to know when tsunami debris arrives is if the amount and type of debris changes. NOAA is working to gather baseline data to determine changes in debris. Groups or individuals may request NOAA Marine Debris Program shoreline monitoring protocols at MD.monitoring@noaa.gov.

Marine Debris Reporting

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

The following organizations will also accept reports and will forward them to NOAA:

  • Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies
  • Gulf of Alaska Keeper
  • Island Charters
  • Island Trails Network
  • Alaska Marine Stewardship Foundation
    Debris sightings can also be reported via Facebook at SeaAlliance/Restoring our Shores.
  • Sitka Sound Science Center
  • Yakutat Salmon Board
  • Any debris that appears to be of a chemical makeup or is hazardous should be reported to:
    Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation
    Southcentral 907-269-3063
    Southeast 907-465-5340
  • Large, or unmanageable debris should be reported to local authorities immediately.

Polystyrene Foam Contamination

Foam is used in marine materials such as buoys, as well as building and home products that were swept to sea during the 2011 tsunami in Japan. DEC has researched the effects of marine debris, particularly polystyrene foam (Styrofoam, foam insulation) on the environment. Foam is non-biodegradable and can stay in the environment for hundreds of years.

While it is not toxic of itself, foam does present a hazard to animals. It is not uncommon for bears to bite and tear into foam and birds often peck at the material and consume it. Animals also mistake smaller fragments for food, and can choke and suffocate if the material gets lodged into their throat or trachea. Foam cannot be broken down by the GI tract and the material can obstruct or block their digestive systems, leading to death by malnutrition or starvation.

Due to the chemical and physical composition of polystyrene foam, the material can leach or absorb other toxins and contaminants. Animals expose themselves to these chemicals when mistaking the material for food. Both DEC's State Veterinarian and ADF&G's Wildlife Veterinarian are watching evolving research, new studies or data that may indicate other toxic effects to marine and coastal wildlife from polystyrene foam.


It is highly unlikely that tsunami debris has been affected by radiation from Japan's Fukushima Nuclear Reactor. The debris was already in the ocean, miles away from the reactor before the radioactive water leak developed. Recent inspections of Alaska beaches have found no marine debris with levels of radiation above normal. For additional questions on radioactivity and radiation testing, visit: www.epa.gov/japan2011 or contact Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) spokesperson Molly Hooven at 202-564-2313.

Cleanup Permitting

The state of Alaska owns the intertidal areas and some uplands. Permits may be required for some beach cleanup activities. Many clean-up efforts conducted by groups of less than 50 people using ATVs or highway vehicles will fall under the generally allowed uses, however, some cleanup activities may exceed what is generally allowed on state land. Use of heavy equipment to assist in the clean-up of state land will require a permit. More information about the generally allowed uses can be found at http://dnr.alaska.gov/mlw/factsht/gen_allow_use.pdf. Most temporary activities related to clean-up that require a permit can be obtained by applying for a Land Use Permit.


The state is working with federal and local partners to assess the impact to Alaska's environment and residents. NOAA is the lead agency on marine debris in Alaska, while State departments have support roles as described below. Governor Parnell directed DEC to coordinate the state agencies responses to marine debris issues. Governor Parnell's administrative order can be read here.

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.

The Government of Japan offered the following two links that would be helpful to viewers of the State of Alaska's Marine Debris website:


National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

NOAA is the lead agency on Japanese tsunami debris. NOAA is working with federal, state, and local partners to collect data, assess the debris, reduce possible impacts to natural resources and coastal communities. NOAA continues to track marine debris and organizes groups for cleanup when debris makes landfall.

For more information regarding tsunami debris in Alaska, contact:

NOAA Marine Debris Program

NOAA coordinates with the Coast Guard to respond to marine debris issues including debris that poses a threat to marine navigation. NOAA also coordinates with the EPA to monitor marine and atmospheric radiation from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant.

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Department of Environmental Conservation

The Department of Environmental Conservation coordinates the activities of state agencies relating to tsunami marine debris. This includes being the primary point of contact for NOAA and other federal agencies. DEC assists in cleanup efforts related to petroleum products and hazardous material debris. Should large quantities of chemical debris come to Alaska's beaches, DEC will initiate cleanup efforts to protect human health and the environment. If cleanup efforts result in the need for disposal of large volumes of debris, DEC will assist with development of disposal plans and permitting of solid waste disposal facilities.

For further information on DEC's role in tsunami debris contact:
Elaine Busse Floyd

For Hazardous Materials Information, visit the Marine Debris Cleanup page.

To report a spill or discovery of hazardous material:

Department of Environmental Conservation
Southcentral 907-269-3063
Southeast 907-465-5340
Also see: How to Report a Spill

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Department of Fish and Game

The Department of Fish and Game stands ready to take appropriate management action if marine debris were to interfere with spawning or harvest of fish. The department provides assistance with documenting entanglements and injury to marine mammals due to any marine debris and assists with education and disentanglement efforts; assists with invasive species monitoring, prevention, and cleanup of non-native organisms that can be transported on marine debris; and provides habitat monitoring and takes appropriate action should it become necessary to ensure habitat protection or restoration efforts due to marine debris.

For further information on the Department of Fish and Game's role in tsunami debris, contact:

Alaska Department of Fish and Game
Public Information

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Department of Labor and Workforce Development

The Department of Labor does not have requirements related to the safety of workers specifically performing cleanup of marine debris. Unless cleanup personnel are volunteers, workers must adhere to general occupational safety rules. For additional information about requirements and safety, contact:

Department of Labor and Workforce Development
Occupational Safety and Health Consultation and Training Office
1-800-656-4972 or 269-4955

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Department of Natural Resources

The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Division of Mining, Land and Water is prepared to authorize clean-up activities that exceed what is generally allowed on state land.

If needed, the DNR Division of Parks & Outdoor Recreation (DPOR) is prepared to:

  • Authorize & monitor cleanup activities on state park managed lands;
  • Provide local knowledge of coastal areas, especially state park managed areas;
  • Through the Office of History & Archaeology, recommend strategies for protection of cultural and historical resources during cleanup efforts and;
  • Through the Office of Boating Safety, assist the US Coast Guard in disseminating marine advisories concerning collections of debris that pose a navigation hazard.

For more information on Land ownership and cleanup permitting, contact:

DNR Public Information Office

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National Park Service

The National Park Service is actively monitoring, surveying, and supporting marine debris clean-up efforts. As a high profile visitation based agency, the National Park Service is also providing information to visitors regarding marine debris hazards, environmental issues, and ongoing challenges. National Park Service operations are being conducted to provide data and information to all interested parties. The National Park Service stands ready to assist and facilitate marine debris response efforts on Alaska National Park coasts.

For further information on NPS's role and actions regarding tsunami debris contact:
Tahzay Jones


Fish and Wildlife Service

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is participating in collective efforts to monitor for marine debris in Alaska. During the summer of 2012, National Wildlife Refuges in Alaska conducted monthly debris surveys at six remote field camps, and reported objects sighted during vessel operations. The USFWS will work with other agencies to respond to future invasive species threats and, to the extent possible, respond to marine debris threats on Alaska National Wildlife Refuges that threaten wildlife.

For further information on the USFWS role and actions regarding tsunami debris contact:
Philip Johnson

Information on Alaska communities


Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development

For more information on communities that could be affected by tsunami debris, visit the Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development's database here: http://www.commerce.state.ak.us/dca/commdb/CF_BLOCK.htm

Contact Information

General questions