SEASIDE — Commercial albacore fisherman Bob Williams worries about what he might do, thousands of miles out in the ocean alone, if his boat runs into debris from the Japanese tsunami.
“It’s not visible at night,” said Williams, who could be fishing somewhere between Oregon and Hawaii. “If you run across a flotilla of nets, you’re dead out there.”
Williams expressed his concern following a discussion in Seaside Wednesday about how much and what kind of debris from last year’s Japanese tsunami might wash up on local beaches.
About 40 people attended the meeting, sponsored by the Surfrider Foundation. The discussion included representatives from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), the U.S. Coast Guard, Oregon Department of Parks and Recreation and the Oregon Health Authority.
Their message: The debris coming to the West Coast won’t be as much as originally estimated and it won’t be radioactive.
In response to numerous telephone calls from coastal residents and visitors asking questions about what to expect, the discussions are being conducted along the coast and in Portland throughout April. A similar meeting is planned from 3 to 4:30 p.m. April 20 in the Cannon Beach City Hall.
“We’re trying to deliver a consistent message” about what to expect, said Charlie Plybon, Oregon field manager for Surfrider Foundation.
Extensive “debris fields” detected by satellite offshore of Japan following a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, are “long gone,” said Nir Barnea, West Coast coordinator for NOAA.
Since last August, two fishing boats have been spotted, and third “ghost ship” entered the ocean near Alaska recently. But little else has been confirmed as having come from Japan, Barnea said.
“Houses do not survive in a high-energy ocean,” Barnea said.
But, Barnea added, “We don’t know the quantity and exact composition of debris still floating.”
Tsunami waves, some as high as a 13-story building, toppled everything in their path and generated 25 million tons of debris. Of that, about 5 million tons of debris were carried into the ocean.
But it is estimated that 70 percent sank immediately, leaving 1.5 million tons floating. At least a third of the remaining debris, however, was dispersed by currents and winds, Barnea said.
By April 14, 2011 – a little more than a month after the tsunami – “debris could no longer be detected by satellite,” he said.
Radiation shouldn’t be an issue because the explosions at the Fukushima nuclear power plant and at other plants occurred after the debris had entered the ocean, Barnea said.
It is also “highly unlikely” that human remains will wash ashore, he added.
If anything does land on the local beaches, it will come sporadically, not in huge amounts at one time.
Beachcombers who do see items of value or potentially hazardous materials, including any barrels or oil drums on the shore, should call the Oregon Emergency Response System, at (800) 452-0311 or report the findings to the local police office.
Among those who may respond to reports of hazardous debris is the U.S. Coast Guard, said Lt. Cmdr. Kelly Thorkilson, of the U.S. Coast Guard Sector Columbia River.
Eleven coast guard personnel are assigned to remove oil and hazardous materials all along the Oregon coast, including northern California and Southwest Washington and inland to the Bonneville Dam, she said.
Three “beach rangers” also patrol the coast for the Oregon Department of Parks and Recreation, said Tony Stein, the department’s Oregon shores coordinator. Although debris, unrelated to the Japanese tsunami, always washes ashore, the rangers will be on the lookout for both higher amounts of debris and hazardous materials, Stein said.
If people walking along the beach see something unfamiliar, they shouldn’t touch it, said Richard Wendt, emergency response manager for the Office of Environmental Public Health for the Oregon Health Authority.
They should also watch out for sharp objects, and, when dealing with debris, wear gloves and sturdy shoes, Wendt said.
Although he wasn’t included among the speakers, Dean Perez, Clatsop County Emergency Management director, attended the session.
“We’re planning for a worst-case scenario,” Perez said. “What keeps me awake is barrels of hazardous materials washing up on the beach in Seaside.”
Perez said a “functional exercise” involving such an event will be conducted at Camp Rilea May 3.
“From Warrenton to Tillamook, we need people like you to watch for this stuff,” Perez said. “If it’s in a metal or plastic container or looks suspicious, we want to know about it.”
This story originally appeared in Daily Astorian.