Expert warns of debris deluge to come

By Jeff Chew
Peninsula Daily News

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SEQUIM — Oceanographer Curt Ebbesmeyer finds it outrageous and unbelievable that a 150-foot Japanese fishing boat carrying 2,100 of diesel fuel was found hazardously adrift about 150 nautical miles southwest of Sitka, Alaska, seemingly showing up like a ghost in the night.

“Why was it only seen March 20?” Ebbesmeyer emphatically asked, addressing about 40 attending a workshop Tuesday in Sequim that was sponsored by the Clallam County Marine Resources Committee, the Surfriders Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“Imagine that happening off the Olympic Coast National [Marine] Sanctuary,” he said. “We need to know four months out if they are coming.”

Something as simple as an emergency 9-1-1 call can at least get a report of a vessel or body part on the record, he said.

Ebbesmeyer said he has heard reports of possibly four other large Japanese fishing vessels adrift in the Pacific Ocean.

Eventually, he said, “I’m expecting 100 boats that are out there.”

Those free-floating boats can be detected through modern technology about 500 miles out. Scientists can predict within 50 miles where debris lands on the shoreline by measuring currents and winds, he said.

The Hokkaido-based Ryou-Un Maru was a Japanese squid-and-shrimping boat washed from its mooring in Aomori Prefecture by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated eastern Japan on March 11, 2011.

After the boat floated near the U.S., the Coast Guard was called in to fire on and sink the vessel.

Not only was it a hazard to shipping lanes, Ebbesmeyer said, but its hull was heavily encrusted with what could be invasive species of sea life that could infest the Olympic Peninsula’s waters.

“I would be worried about invasive species getting into our marine sanctuary,” he said.

He urged residents to loudly voice their concerns about large adrift vessels that potentially threaten the wild Olympic Coast.

He said they should contact their state and federal congressional representatives to help with planning that will clean up the coastal mess and the many hazards it will bring.

Masses of Styrofoam, glass, plastic and steel buoys of all shapes and sizes; plastic, glass and metal containers carrying highly toxic substances; and other debris, even bowling balls, are likely to come here, he said.

“In October, we have to have a plan,” he warned. “We might wake up to a beach that’s full of Styrofoam . . . what are you going to do? If you don’t have a plan, you are not doing to know what to do.

“This is unprecedented in human history. No one has ever seen a debris field of this magnitude.”

Ebbesmeyer, co-creator of the Ocean Surface Current Simulator, or OSCURS, computer model that predicts flotsam movement, said flotsam and jetsam are likely to come in large waves. He cited the oceanographer’s axiom: “Flotsam that starts together lands together.”

Lumber and creosote-coated poles from Japan also are expected to hit beaches.

He spent much of the workshop showing photos of items that have washed up around the world and are likely to land here.

It is estimated that about a quarter of the
25 million tons of debris that was washed out into the Pacific will land along the U.S. West Coast.

Ebbesmeyer and others with the Surfriders Foundation, Marine Resources Committee and NOAA are expected to conduct a workshop at 1:30 p.m. today at The Landing mall, 114 E. Railroad Ave. in Port Angeles.

Smaller items from the tsunami-devastated area that have washed up on the Washington coastline in the past month include a soccer ball, a basketball, a large steel fish-attraction buoy, a kid’s ball and a fishing boat flag.

Ginoza fish-attraction buoys as long as 30 feet and as heavy as 3 tons also may wash up.

Toxic items found include military locator markers, which are filled with toxic red phosphorous that can burn through skin to the bone.

Expended plastic shotgun shell casings and a Bic lighter with fuel still inside them have been found in seabirds. Even 60-year-old plastic from World War II likely will be found on local beaches, Ebbesmeyer said.

Human remains, such as feet inside athletic shoes, human skulls and jawbones, also have been known to float up on beaches.

Plastic Japanese survey sticks and railroad markers sticks, even a bamboo high-tea wisk, have been found.

“Whatever you find, get a picture of it,” Ebbesmeyer urged. Such photos can then be digitally sent to authorities.

If you see flotsam and debris, report it to NOAA at disasterdebris@noaa.gov.

To report hazardous materials, phone the state Department of Ecology at 800-645-7911.

The federal response number is 800-424-8802.

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Sequim-Dungeness Valley Editor Jeff Chew can be reached at 360-681-2390 or at jeff.chew@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: May 22. 2012 6:22PM
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