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Tsunami & 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.

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. In 2012, then 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.

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.

ADEC contact
Shannon Miller

Other federal and state agency contacts

NOAA Marine Debris Program

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (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. 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 nuclear plant.

NOAA Marine Debris Program

Alaska Department of Fish & Game

The Department of Fish and Game (DF&G) will 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.

ADF&G Public Information Office

Alaska Department of Natural Resources

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

DNR Public Information Office

Alaska Department of Commerce, Community, & Economic Development

Division of Community and Regional Affairs

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