Debris Check: What’s in the Waves?

Japan tsunami debris NOAA Heal the Bay marine debris Los Angeles County cleanup

Today’s guest blogger is Dana Roeber Murray, a marine and coastal scientist with Heal the Bay.

A little more than a year after the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Heal the Bay is conducting our first tsunami debris monitoring of Los Angeles area beaches in partnership with the NOAA Marine Debris Program.

Beginning June 8, we will launch monthly monitoring efforts that will also help gather information about how trash and debris unrelated to the tsunami accumulates on our local beaches over time. Our first survey will be in Palos Verdes, and we will also survey in Malibu.

This monitoring occurs not a moment too soon, as I discovered on a recent family trip to Hawaii when I brought my daughter to one of my favorite beaches - Honokalani Black Sand Beach in Wainapanapa State Park in Maui.

I had camped at this state park a couple years ago and had remembered it being one of the most scenic and unique beaches I’d ever been to, complete with sea turtles riding in the waves. However, during this visit, I was surprised to see quite a lot of plastic debris fringing the tide line on this black sand beach. Other visitors thought they were little shells and would stoop down for a closer look, only to find bits of white and multicolored plastic lining the beach.

When I took a closer look at the plastic debris, I found Japanese writing and odd shaped plastic pieces, and determined that I was likely looking at plastic marine debris that had washed ashore all the way from Japan after the tsunami last year. In March 2011, the tsunami washed boats, buildings, appliances, plastic objects, and other items into the sea, which initially were visible by satellite as a debris field off the coast of Japan, but have since dispersed. Wind and ocean currents have scattered the items throughout the North Pacific Ocean, and some items likely sank to the seafloor.

In addition to what I witnessed first-hand on the beach in Maui, on mainland U.S. shores, there have been a few confirmed reports of tsunami related debris washing ashore in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, including a soccer ball, motorcycle, and fishing vessel. However, we have yet to see evidence of any tsunami related debris washing ashore in Southern California. NOAA and oceanographic experts believe the debris will continue to disperse by wind and ocean currents, and they are uncertain as to if or when we will see effects in Southern California, which is part of the importance of regular monitoring.

If you find anything on the beach that you think might be related to the tsunami, please contact Heal the Bay’s Policy Analyst Kathryn Benz. In addition, you can report it to report it to NOAA.

Want to know more? Read our Tsunami Debris FAQ and NOAA's Factsheet.

Marine debris persists as a problem here in Southern California, whether it comes from overseas or from inland sources. Heal the Bay conducts regular beach cleanups throughout Los Angeles County. Please join us for a cleanup.