UPDATE — Tsunami debris team fails to reach huge dock on coastal beach

Peninsula Daily News - Rob Ollikainen

LAPUSH — A rain-swollen stream Thursday prevented a team of investigators from reaching a huge dock believed to have floated across the Pacific to a remote beach south of LaPush after the Japanese tsunami of March 2011.

Olympic National Park officials said the team members, representing federal and state agencies, trekked several miles through rugged terrain but had to turn around 200 yards from the dock because they couldn't get across Mosquito Creek, running high and fast from a storm.

Team members plan to mount another effort Friday, if weather permits. They hope to verify that the dock came from Japan, measure it and inspect it for invasive species.

Tides in the area may make Friday the “last best shot” to reach the dock before early January, said Dave Workman, spokesman for the state Marine Debris Task Force.

The National Park Service-led team, which includes the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, Williams College, Oregon State University and Ballard Diving and Salvage, was able to see the dock through binoculars.

Park spokeswoman Rainey McKenna, who was briefed on the operation late Thursday, said there appeared to be some marine organisms on the dock, but not a heavy amount.

No writings were visible on the dock, she said.

A Coast Guard helicopter crew spotted the dock on the wilderness beach in Olympic National Park south of LaPush on Tuesday. 

The beach, between LaPush and the Hoh River on the northwest tip of Washington, is about a five-mile hike from the nearest road on primitive trails crossing rough terrain.

The nearest towns are LaPush and Forks, of “Twilight” book and movie fame, about 100 miles west of Seattle.

Officials say the dock appears to be similar to a Japanese dock that washed ashore last June in Oregon. That dock was cut up and hauled away after officials removed marine organisms native to Japan that were found on the structure.

If the team members are successful in getting to the dock on Friday, they will inspect it for
invasive species, place a tracking beacon on it (in case it floats back to sea), take samples and measurements and verify dock's origin.

Removing the dock or just scraping it clean of potential invasive species of marine life “is going to be a real challenge to find the right solution,” Workman said.

“It's a very precarious location to get to, especially in these conditions,” Workman said. “At high tide there's no beach, and you've got a bluff.”

McKenna said there were 17-foot swells off the beach on Thursday, and three inches of rain in the last two days.

“There was a lot of water out there today,” she said.

The National Park Service has closed the wilderness coast between Hoh Head and Toleak Point to all public entry.

“Our primary concerns are invasive species and making sure everybody is safe in this scenario,” park spokeswoman Barb Maynes said earlier Wednesday.

Sen. Maria Cantwell's office said the dock on the Olympic National Park beach was confirmed as tsunami debris from a photo taken by a fisherman and analyzed by a researcher working under a RAPID National Science Foundation grant to track debris.

Cantwell, D-Wash., is pushing federal legislation seeking $20 million for tsunami debris removal.

While the dock is likely of Japanese origin, Workman said officials will follow the protocol established by the United States and Japan to reach a definitive conclusion.

Officials are concerned about non-native plants or animals that may have hitched a ride on the dock.

It is believed to be similar to the 165-ton concrete and steel dock that washed ashore in June near Newport, Ore.

Looking like a railroad boxcar, the Newport dock was 66 feet long, 19 feet wide and 7 feet high. A plaque identified it as one of four owned by Aomori Prefecture that broke loose from the port of Misawa during the 2011 tsunami.

The docks were used for loading fish onto trucks.  One of the four docks turned up several weeks after the tsunami on an island south of Misawa.

Volunteers scraped off 2 tons of seaweed and creatures that were clinging to the Newport dock.

Among them were four species — a seaweed, a sea star, a mussel and a shore crab — that are native to Japan and have established themselves as invasive species elsewhere, said Caren Braby, manager of marine resources for Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

Officials won't know for a couple years whether any of them escaped to get a foothold in Oregon, she said.

The scrapings were buried above the high water line. The dock was sterilized with blowtorches, then cut up and removed last summer.

The Olympic dock could get the same treatment to head off a non-native plant or animal taking hold, said state Fish and Wildlife Department spokesman Bruce Botka.

“Our folks are looking at everything at the front end to avoid having a much bigger problem later,” he said.