Cantwell, Begich: Plan now for tsunami debris

Seattle Times - Donna Gordon Blankinship

SEATTLE — With a derelict Japanese fishing boat floating off the coast of Canada, U.S. senators from Alaska and Washington state said Friday that the United States needs to hurry up and get ready for more debris from last year's Japanese tsunami.

Sens. Maria Cantwell and Mark Begich spoke at the Seattle Aquarium about concerns the U.S. hasn't committed enough money and effort toward researching the impact of the debris field floating across the Pacific Ocean.

"Once the debris gets here, it's almost too late," said Cantwell, D-Wash.

The senators said they're asking for three things from the federal government, including emergency research money to better understand where the debris is going and how much can be expected on U.S. shores.

They want scientists studying the debris to have access to all the information and data the U.S. government might have, even if it's classified.

Begich, D-Alaska, and Cantwell said they also want to make sure the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's shoreline cleanup budget is not cut. They're worried about a proposed 25 percent cut in that money.

A large fishing vessel swept away by the tsunami has been seen adrift off British Columbia.

The 50-foot-long vessel was spotted earlier this month more than 100 miles offshore, according to Jeff Olsson of Victoria, B.C.'s Joint Rescue Coordination Center.

The vessel has been identified as coming from Hokkaido, Japan.

About 5 million tons of debris were swept into the ocean in March 2011 when a magnitude-9.0 earthquake and tsunami struck Japan.

Begich said his state already knows how expensive it can be to dispose of large debris.

Last September, the Coast Guard seized a stateless, suspected illegal fishing vessel in international waters 2,600 miles off Alaska's coast. The agency escorted it to a point near Dutch Harbor in southwest Alaska - and that's when the bill started mounting.

Ridding that ship of rats has cost $200,000, Begich said, estimating that the cost of ultimate disposal cost could hit $500,000.

He'd like to see the federal government allow states to sink any large tsunami debris that comes their way, but they would need federal guidance about what to do.

Now he's worried the Japanese fishing vessel off Canada might end up in Alaska waters.

"My understanding is they know the owner and he has indicated they don't want it," Begich said. "Neither do we."

Also at the news conference were NOAA scientists and Professor Parker MacCready of the University of Washington School of Oceanography.

According to KING-TV, MacCready said currents are likely to carry most of the smaller, less wind-blown debris to Washington, but the currents will also split, sending debris both north up the coast toward Canada and Alaska, and down the coast to California.

KING-TV reports that MacCready's models also show how currents along the Washington and the British Columbia shoreline could bring debris into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, possibly as far in as the opening to Puget Sound.

MacCready said there's virtually no possibility the debris will be radioactive.

Large objects like ships are primarily wind-driven, while smaller debris tends to be driven by much slower currents, he said.

NOAA is asking beachcombers to report unusual finds to marinedebris(at)noaa.gov.