'Ghost ship' just the beginning of tsunami debris impact

Source: KOMO News

KOMO TV - Staff

PORT ANGELES, Wash. - The recent sinking of a 164-foot Japanese fishing vessel could be the first of many incidents involving large tsunami-strewn debris, experts say.

Since last year, the Japanese government has been tracking detailed information of debris sightings collected from ships in the Pacific Ocean.

Those sightings coupled with U.S. and Japanese satellite technology show a debris field that spans more than half of the North Pacific Ocean.

Some of it is heading to the shorelines of North America — including the North Olympic Peninsula, which already has received “early warnings” consisting of barrel-sized fishnet floats and other small flotsam and jetsam.

Nothing resembling the Ryou-Un Maru — the former shrimping ship that drifted unmanned into maritime path of ships that include the huge tankers that transport oil from Alaska to Puget Sound and California — have shown up.

The Ryou-Un Maru now sits in about 200 fathoms of water after the U.S. Coast Guard fired 50 mm and 20 mm shells at the vessel Thursday afternoon.

It sunk Thursday evening Pacific time.

A Coast Guard spokesman said the decision to sink the ship, which caused a minimal sheen on the ocean surface about 150 miles off southwest Alaska — the ship was believed to have little fuel aboard — was the best compared with letting it wash ashore and break apart.

It had no lights aboard, making it a hazard to navigation, the spokesman said.

According to calculations by Japan's Cabinet Secretariat for Ocean Policy, as many as 5 million tons of debris — mostly damaged buildings — were sucked into the Pacific by the tsunami on March 11, 2011.

The agency calculated that up to 70 percent of the material was concrete and other heavy material, which quickly sank to the bottom of the ocean.

But the remaining 30 percent - some 1.5 million tons - is still floating.

“Even though most nations have expressed their understanding that the debris was caused by an uncontrollable natural disaster, it nonetheless came from our country and we will do our utmost to fulfill our responsibilities” Tetsuyuki Tamura, an official at the Ocean Policy Secretariat, told MSNBC last week.

The most important task, Tamura said, will be the sharing of information, particularly with the United States and Canada.

On our shores, Washington U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., is leading a Capitol Hill fight toward committing more federal money to research the impact of the debris field floating toward the U.S.

She and Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, spoke Friday at the Seattle Aquarium about their worries over a proposed 25 percent cut in the money given to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for shoreline cleanup.

That cut, they said, would curb efforts to keep beaches clean all along the Pacific coast.

“We need more data and better science to track and respond to tsunami debris already approaching our coasts,” said Cantwell, a member and former chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard.

“Hundreds of thousands of jobs in Washington state depend on our healthy marine ecosystems and coastal communities. We can't wait until tsunami debris washes ashore.

“We need to have an aggressive plan on how we're going to deal with it.”

NOAA, meanwhile, is asking beachcombers to report unusual finds to disasterdebris@noaa.gov.

Sometime this month, Japan is expected to post a computer simulation of the debris traveling across the Pacific to help gauge its route and the speed.