The Blog Aquatic » tsunami debris News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy Thu, 28 Aug 2014 17:32:30 +0000 en-US hourly 1 VIDEO: My GYRE Expedition to Alaska’s Remote Coastline Mon, 22 Jul 2013 19:39:16 +0000 Nick Mallos
This video is the final update from Ocean Conservancy Conservation Biologist and Marine Debris Specialist Nicholas Mallos about his GYRE Expedition in Alaska. Read his first update here, his second here and his third here.

I recently returned from an expedition to survey ocean trash on some of the most remote coastlines in all of Alaska. Rarely do you get the opportunity to be so close to the very animals you are working to protect.

In this video that I shot during the trip, I explain what I saw on my journey, from marine debris that would dwarf a human to breaching humpbacks, fin whales, mothers and their calves. Yes, we have blemished these landscapes, but the incredible wildlife that still thrive there is all the more the reason to continue our work to keep trash out of our waterways and our ocean.

Watch the video and join the fight for a healthy ocean.

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Marine Debris and Unforgettable Humpbacks in Wonder Bay Tue, 25 Jun 2013 17:11:26 +0000 Nick Mallos humpback whale breach

Credit: Nick Mallos/Ocean Conservancy

One of the most amazing experiences from my time with the GYRE Expedition occurred in Wonder Bay—a name that each locale in Alaska is rightly deserving of as the beauty and tranquility of the landscape here never ceases. Although Wonder Bay is aptly named, the debris problem here was much bigger than we expected considering its relatively small wrack line roughly 100 meters from the tide line, much higher than the other beaches we’ve surveyed.

My morning objective was to search for bottle caps along the wrack lines of each of the three pocket beaches lining Wonder Bay. I plucked 227 caps from the three beaches, some requiring far greater effort than others to collect.

A red bottle cap sticking out of a dense area of sedge grass quickly revealed another eight PET bottles, each with a colorful cap. With only a quick glance none of these items were visible, causing me to ponder how many other bottles and caps were hidden among the grasses or tucked into the various crevices among the rocks.

Beyond the beach’s berm was a small patch of wetland followed by a forest that rises quickly in elevation. Outfitted with my indestructible knee-high boots, I made my way through the quicksand-esque mud to take a look at the tree line of the forest.

To my amazement, I came across another large foam aquaculture float washed in by the tsunami. These floats have become a staple debris item on each beach we visit. The float was nestled behind a massive Sitka spruce some 200 meters from the tideline, and it serves as yet another reminder of the powerful wave and tidal action that influences these remote shorelines.

Nearby the degrading foam, a massive bundle of black plastic strapping bands intertwined with a clump of sedges. The strapping bands were unused and likely lost during transport years ago. The sedges hid most of the synthetic strips, causing several of us to contemplate whether at some point these items stop being pollution and become part of the environment. Ultimately, I think the answer depends on what demonstrable impacts those plastics have.

We departed Wonder Bay’s protection after several hours in the field and all on board the Norseman prepared to enter the legendary Shelikof Strait, which is notorious for delivering massive waves, high winds and all-around discomfort to those individuals who have not yet acquired their “sea legs.” But instead of tumultuous waters and uneasy stomachs, we were graced with the most magical wildlife encounter of my life.

Shortly after leaving Wonder Bay, Carl reported a breaching humpback several hundred meters off the bow. Such a report sends the team into frenzy, and within seconds the bow of the Norseman was full of people, cameras in hand. As we motored into the Strait, spouts increasingly appeared on the horizon in all directions. Fifty whales would not be an exaggeration.

Transfixed by the sights, our excitement grew into pure amazement when a large humpback completely exited the water some 200 meters from the boat. Her re-entry from breach sent a thunderous crash of water into the air. This miraculous evening encounter alone would have been sufficient but the show was not even close to complete.

Moments later, a mother humpback—the one we believe performed the aerial—appeared no more than 30 meters from our vessel, her calf alongside. Captain Paul immediately cut the engines to avoid disturbing or injuring the marine mammals.

My teammates and I stood hypnotized by the close encounter, and although it was not my first such encounter, it might as well have been. The sound of a spouting whale is indescribable—almost spiritual—and from our close proximity, we could feel the power of each exhalation. The mother and child remained close, and the calf fumbled about on the surface, still working to master its surface behavior. After gracing us with 30 minutes of their time, the calf signed off with the most resplendent farewell: a full breach only meters from the boat.

We each stood on the Norseman’s bow. Mirrored images of the Katmai Mountains and setting sun made it difficult to discern where reality started and reflections began. Camera clicks ceased, and no words were spoken. At a time like this, no words or pictures suffice. The best thing to do is simply cherish the moment, as most mariners spend their lifetimes on the sea and do not experience such an encounter.

So there we were, a strange mélange of people from around the world sitting calmly on waters that by all accounts should be turbulent and unforgiving, sharing a moment that will likely be our only in this lifetime.

Alaska. Wow!

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Fly Swatters, a Whale Skull and Sore Feet Tue, 18 Jun 2013 20:44:56 +0000 Nick Mallos

This is the third update from Ocean Conservancy Conservation Biologist and Marine Debris Specialist Nicholas Mallos, writing from the GYRE Expedition in Alaska.  Read his first update here, and his second here

Motivating oneself to work on minimal sleep is not difficult after spending an hour watching humpback and fin whales surface-feed. Graced yet again with sunny skies and calm seas, we deployed Jubatus after fueling up on coffee and assembling our gear. We skimmed across the water’s glassy surface and landed on a small pocket beach at Perevalnie Point on Shuyak Island just after 9 a.m.

Tucked inside a protected cove, the beach’s wrack line was minuscule compared to that at Gore Point, but sizeable when contrasted to most other places. Debris composition however, was fairly indistinguishable—tsunami oyster buoys, fishing nets and buoys and plastic bottles were strewn above and below the fallen timber. The 100 meter expanse of fallen timber was not short on bottle caps either. I collected 51 caps (most adorned with Asian brands) during our 30-minute visit to the beach. Black oystercatchers cautiously watched my every move from the water’s edge as I carefully navigated the unstable wrack line.

We motored out of the cove and through Perevalnie Passage where sea otters hunted in dense kelp beds, and bald eagles soared above, occasionally snagging a fish from just below the water’s service. We emerged from the protected waters of the Passage and cruised into Red Buoy Bay, named for a ten-foot tall red buoy that washed in during a ferocious winter storm and now rests between the beach and the pine forest. Comparatively, Red Buoy was a clean beach. We came across fishing net scraps and buoys intermittently along the beach, and I collected 45 bottle caps from the kilometer-long beach. My most interesting find was a “Marlboro Man” plastic cigarette lighter manufactured in France. Tracking down the approximate manufacturing date will be my first investigative project when I arrive home.

Our final beach landing of the day took place on a small island with high-energy pocket beaches along the eastern edge of Shelikof Strait. The steeply sloped beaches were small in width but had accumulated massive amounts of timber and debris. These beaches were the most unstable I’ve ever been to, as logs teetered under my every step. Oyster buoys, plastic beer crates and fishing buoys were among debris items on the small island, along with 65 plastic bottle caps dispersed amongst the monstrous logs. One of the most interesting items on these beaches was not synthetic though.  It was a massive whale skull likely belonging to a fin or humpback that once foraged the productive waters of Shelikof Strait. Steps away from the skull was a meter-long foam aquaculture float from the tsunami.

Surprisingly, a whale skull was not the most peculiar debris item we encountered during the day. That honor was reserved for plastic fly swatters. Thousands of these items emblazoned with college and professional sports teams’ logos were lost during a Costco Yokohama container spill, and have been appearing on beaches along the entire Alaska coast. Since commencing surveys, our team has picked up fly swatters with Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, UNC Tar Heels, Minnesota Vikings, Iowa Hawkeyes, Alabama Crimson Tide, Clemson Tigers and the New England Patriots logos.

Immediately upon stepping back onto the Norseman after 10 hours in the field, I quickly trade in my Xtratufs for bare feet to provide some relief to my bruised feet and sore legs. My rubber knee-high boots are fantastic at keeping my feet dry throughout the day but they’re dismal at providing even the slightest bit of comfort while trekking through sand and over logs.

After dinner, work onboard the Norseman abruptly shifts from physical labor to intellectual output, as each of us diligently processes the day’s samples, sends emails and pictures and blogs, recounting the day’s events. As the crew and I burn the midnight oil (not whale-based, thankfully) the sun finally begins to set. It’s approaching 1 a.m. We essentially work 24 hours a day while at-sea but somehow no one seems to mind. My guess is the stunning wildlife, snow-capped mountain ranges and lull of the ocean that wholly encompasses us may have something to do with it.

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Japan Tsunami Anniversary: the Journey So Far and What’s to Come Mon, 11 Mar 2013 16:06:45 +0000 Nick Mallos

Credit: NOAA

Tokyo. Sendai. Kamaishi City. Portland. Honolulu. Hilo. Kahului. Lincoln City. Newport Beach. These are places I’ve been fortunate enough to visit over the past year – for a very unfortunate reason. Two years ago on this very day, the ocean reminded the world of its astounding power when the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami devastated the country’s northern coast. While significant recovery work remains to rebuild Japan, an increased focus has been placed on the exorbitant quantity of marine debris generated by the tsunami’s receding waters. At the same time, international entities are collaborating on tsunami debris response measures, while researchers learn a great deal about marine debris in general.

Because we know the precise time at which debris was deposited into the ocean, researchers have had an unparalleled opportunity to examine how debris moves in the marine environment. With each confirmation of tsunami debris washing ashore, oceanographers at University of Hawaii’s International Pacific Research Center have refined their models and are predicting when and where large volumes of tsunami debris will wash ashore with greater levels of confidence. Current predictions indicate significant debris accumulations will commence in June. However, these models are merely predictions and no one can say for certain what we will see or when we will see it. This uncertainty further underscores the importance of remaining vigilant for potential tsunami debris in the coming months.

Last summer in Alaska, Hawaii, Washington and Oregon, “waves” of similar debris items began washing ashore. This wave was followed by an unusually large number of appliances found on Hawaiian beaches. The three segments of docks that were swept out of Misawa came to rest on the Oregon and Washington coasts over a span of six months. By studying these events, oceanographers were able to determine that the amount of wind affecting debris — better known as “windage” — largely determines the speed at which debris drifts across the ocean. This phenomenon largely explains why we’ve seen these waves of debris.

In November, the Japanese government announced it would donate $6 million to the United States and Canada to help mitigate the costs of tsunami debris response efforts and debris clean up.

This tragic event has engaged a broad network of dedicated responders from both sides of the Pacific, including government representatives at NOAA and the Japanese Ministry of the Environment, NGOs like the Japanese Environmental Action Network and Ocean Conservancy and passionate volunteers. Ocean Conservancy has developed a Tsunami Debris Field Guide that serves as an educational tool for those volunteers along the West Coast.

Today, on the two year anniversary of the tsunami, I board a plane destined for Tokyo where I will meet with the Japanese Ministry of Environment and Japanese and U.S. NGOs to discuss tsunami response efforts to date, and preparations moving forward. During my stay, I will again have the opportunity to tour the coastal towns near Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture. And while in my mind I am optimistic that the recovery effort will be near completion, I know the reality is that Sendai — and much of Japan — has a long road to recovery, but physical recovery is only step one. In Sendai, many elementary and middle-aged students have not returned to the beach or ocean since 3/11 because the emotional trauma is too great. For many of them, these places have become synonymous with terror, destruction and death.

The ensuing threat of tsunami debris is great, but we must never forget that the tsunami was first and foremost a human tragedy — unpreventable, unpredictable and unavoidable.

So today, March 11th, 2013, honor the people of Japan with a moment of silence and ask the simple question, “How can we help Japan?”


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Aloha, Plastics: Ocean Trash Adventures in Hawaii Tue, 15 Jan 2013 20:15:40 +0000 Nick Mallos

Neither tsunami debris nor marine debris is going away any time soon. Following an August 2012 NGO tsunami meeting and increasing reports of tsunami debris on the U.S. West Coast and Hawaii, concern and interest about tsunami debris in Japan continues to increase. Responding to this interest, the Environmental Restoration and Conservation Agency of Japan has funded a series of beach site investigations in the United States to convey the present situation of both tsunami and marine debris to Japan officials and the Japanese people. The first stop for these surveys:  Hawaii.

I teamed up with members from Japan Environmental Action Network (JEAN), the Oceanic Wildlife Society and the Japan Ministry of Environment tobegin surveys on O’ahu beaches where confirmed and suspected tsunami debris has recently been found . During our first inspection at Hanauma Bay, we examined a rusted Japanese refrigerator that washed ashore on December 20th, 2012, several days before a second fridge was found on Waimanalo Beach. Cleanup volunteers commonly found refrigerator pieces on Kaua’i beaches during this past summer.

Dr. Nikolai Maximenko of the University of Hawaii International Pacific Research Center (IPRC) explained that these different ‘waves’ of alike debris (e.g., oyster buoys, refrigerators, etc.) are a result of how tsunami debris is affected by wind. Because the tsunami debris entered the ocean at the same time, similar items travel at the same speed and will appear on Hawaiian and West Coast beaches around the same time.

Chris Woolaway, Hawaii’s International Coastal Cleanup State Coordinator, stated that since 2012 “Our volunteers and other members of the community have noticed larger debris that is less degraded coming in with the more chronic debris. This debris, as predicted by the IPRC, has shown up on sites already identified by long standing observations and monitoring.”

Our second shoreline inspection took place at Ki’I Dunes Beach, a 1,100 acre stretch of natural coastline, dunes and wetland on O’ahu’s North Shore that is part of the James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge. We assessed debris abundance and composition at Ki’I Dunes by removing and cataloging all marine debris inside a 25 m2 quadrat; these data will be compared to historical data collected at the same site during past Cleanups. The most notable items on this stretch of beach include  oyster spacers, hagfish traps, fishing net and rope, and of course an immesurable amount of mircoplastics. Atypical debris findings have been reported at Ki’i over the past 6 months, and Chris noted that the items we found match debris trends on other beaches across the Islands.

We conducted visual surveys as well and removed debris from the Refuge’s jagged coastline. These surveys revealed two items that had never been seen prior to the tsunami—half of a black oyster buoy and a 1 m2 piece of framed housing insulation. Large quantities of insulation foam were found on other parts of the beach as well, but only the buoy and framed insulation will be analyzed to confirm they’re of tsunami origin.

Our survey at Ki’I Dunes highlighted the serious debris problem that plagues all of Hawaii’s coastlines. Dissimilar to many beaches, much of Hawaii’s debris is not left by beachgoers. Instead, it washes ashore originating from faraway lands.

Tsunami debris or not, unfortunately the world’s trash problem has become Hawaii’s unavoidable plastic debris problem. And I assure you in response to this unnatural “plastics” disaster, no Hawaiian is saying, Mahalo.

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Wrangling Invasive Species in Cajun Tennis Shoes Thu, 27 Sep 2012 21:27:21 +0000 Guest Blogger

Credit: peternijenhuis flickr stream

If I were to tell you there’s a rodeo for hunting invasive species, or that I feed my dog treats made of swamp rats, you’d probably think I have my Cajun tennis shoes (shrimp boots) on too tight. But if you go to just one of these events, you’d immediately see the innovation and creativity that is put into eradicating and raising awareness of invasive species…and that my boots fit just fine.

Rio Grande Cichlids, Nutria Rats, and Lionfish are among an already too long and growing list of invasive species that now call the Gulf Coast home. If these species don’t sound familiar, think Kudzu – the vine that ate the south. These unwelcome visitors, introduced accidentally or purposely, out-compete native species for space and resources. But the Gulf Coast is not the only area fighting invasive species; The West Coast of North America is currently grappling with debris from the Japanese tsunami and the hitchhiking creatures washing up with it.

As invasive species do what they do best, invade, the general public is joining the fight – along with governmental agencies, scientists, and environmentalists – to raise awareness of the need to remove these species and keep them from being introduced in the first place. Well, now that you’ve been through Invasive Species 101, here’s your prize: an explanation of the events I mentioned earlier.

Both Righteous Fur and Marsh Dog received a small grant from the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program to kick-start their projects, both of which have taken off. Nutriapalooza is a fashion show featuring nutria rat fur put on by Righteous Fur, whose tagline is “Save Our Wetlands: Wear More Nutria.” Their goal is to help control a destructive invasive species, raise public awareness about the need to restore the vanishing coast, and provide a stylish, eco-friendly alternative to traditional fur. But before you say “Eww! Fur!!” I encourage you to keep an open mind and visit their website.

Marsh Dog is an innovative market-based approach to solve the invasive nutria problem with dog biscuits made from nutria meat. Marsh Dog says “Owners can treat their dogs to an all-natural, sustainable treat that tastes good and does good while helping to support the fight to conserve…coastal wetlands.” My pound puppy loves them.

The Nutria Rodeo is an event created by Sassafras Louisiana to help put a dent in the nutria rat population. (Yes, there is a nutria rat hunting season in Louisiana). The organization is meant to bring the youth together in the restoration and preservation of Louisiana. Yes, you read that right, youth lead by other youths. I’d bet my last crawfish one of these young adults will have an address at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington one day.

The Rio Grande Cichlid Rodeo is a fishing tournament organized by Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries designed to help reduce the number of invasive Rio Grande Cichlids in New Orleans.

While these are a few of my favorite events in Louisiana, there are probably events like these near you. I encourage you to participate in something local and to learn what you can do about the growing threat of tsunami debris.

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What To Do If You Find Tsunami Debris Washed Ashore Thu, 20 Sep 2012 15:01:38 +0000 Nick Mallos

Ocean Conservancy created a Tsunami Debris Field Guide that highlights the most common items of debris that have been washing onto West Coast beaches. Click the image to download the complete version.

Marine debris generated from the March 11th tsunami is drastically different from the ocean trash that was already plaguing our ocean. Over the coming months, there may be many difficult-to-collect debris items from the tsunami such as housing and construction materials, fishing gear and vessels. We could also find potentially dangerous items such as combustibles, as well as personal items related to the victims. Therefore, it is critical that volunteers and beachcombers document each item of debris they encounter on beaches with the highest level of scrutiny.

To assist with this effort, Ocean Conservancy created a Tsunami Debris Field Guide that highlights the most common debris items that are washing onto West Coast beaches in significantly higher numbers than in previous years. Content for the field guide was informed by our database of Cleanup data, NOAA, the California Coastal Commission and International Coastal Cleanup West Coast State Coordinators.

The field guide is NOT intended to forecast the arrival of tsunami debris and it’s imperative to remember that debris from foreign countries regularly washes onto U.S. West Coast beaches, so Asian characters on debris alone do not confirm it originated during the tsunami. The field guide provides Cleanup volunteers an educational tool so they can identify potential tsunami debris while sauntering West Coast beaches. International Coastal Cleanup participants have been using the field guide during the International Coastal Cleanup, noting any suspected tsunami debris items in the Items of Local Concern section on the Cleanup data card. These data will be analyzed in the months following the Cleanup and compared with tsunami debris model predictions. There are also protocols for handling and reporting suspected tsunami debris on the field guide.

The Tsunami Debris Field Guide can be found at Ocean Conservancy’s Tsunami Debris Action Center, along with other information about tsunami debris, what to do if you’ve found suspected tsunami debris, and how to differentiate tsunami debris from ocean trash. You can also enter your email address below to sign up to receive tsunami debris updates as new information becomes available:


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If you see a significant debris sighting, please send a photo and as much information as possible to

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