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Setting Sail on a Tsunami Debris Research Mission

Posted On May 17, 2012 by

In just a few short weeks, I will set sail from Tokyo on an expedition led by 5 Gyres Institute and Algalita Marine Research Institute.

This four-week research mission will travel from Tokyo to Maui along the projected path of the Japanese tsunami debris. Our goal is to learn more about size and composition of the debris now making its way across the Pacific Ocean and the threat it poses to marine ecosystems along the way.

We know a lot of debris was swept out into the ocean, but what we don’t know is what’s still afloat, and this research expedition will provide a snapshot of what might show up on our shores.

For much of the journey, I’ll be tracking and recording the location and movements of the items I see – and I’ll sample what I can. Documenting what types of materials are out there, and how they are responding to currents and wind, will help us understand the trajectory of the debris and what it means for our ocean and coastlines.

I’ll also be watching for wildlife by recording the species I see, where I see them, and if or how they interact with the debris. I’m especially concerned about the large amount of fishing gear that was swept out to sea with the tsunami wave. Whole fishing villages were washed away leaving nets, fishing line and other gear that pose entanglement threats to sea turtles, dolphins, bluefin tuna and many other wildlife.

Another goal of this trip is to add data to Ocean Conservancy’s larger study of ocean debris and pollution. I think it’s important to remember that while nature caused the tsunami, the vast majority of debris in the ocean was there a long time before last year’s disaster and was caused not by nature but by humans.

Two years ago, while on my first expedition with Ocean Conservancy, I traveled to the North Pacific Gyre, a vortex of circulating ocean currents that has accumulated large concentrations of floating debris. What I witnessed there was eye-opening: Day after day for nearly a week, household trash items floated by me.

The good news is that this problem is preventable, and we can make an impact with the choices each of us makes every day. By removing and reducing the amount of trash in our ocean and waterways, we can help ensure that the ocean is more resilient in the face of unavoidable natural disasters.

Stay updated as I journey across the Pacific by following me on Twitter: @nickmallos and learn more about the tsunami debris and how you can help by joining us online.