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Tons of tsunami debris still afloat

The headline “Japanese boat washes ashore on Oregon beach” has become a recurring theme in the last few weeks. At least four boats with Japanese writing on their hulls have landed on state beaches in the last month.

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Whether any are related to the 2011 tsunami might never be definitively determined, Chris Havel, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Parks and Recreation, told Soundings, but a trend has clearly emerged.

“The embassy in Japan is very disciplined in that if they can’t make a direct link between a serial number and registration, they don’t offer us any explanation,” Havel said. “However, how many Japanese boats washed up on the Oregon coast before the tsunami? Almost zero. I think it’s safe to say that it’s likely related.”

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The most recent arrival, a 24-foot open fiberglass boat, was removed from Muriel Ponsler Wayside beach, north of Florence, Ore., on March 14.

These are the other Japanese boats that landed in Oregon:

• A 17-foot panga-style fiberglass boat washed ashore 2 miles north of Sunset Beach on Feb. 27.

• A 30-foot boat was found Feb. 20 on Horsfall Beach and identified as one from Honshu Island that was lost in the tsunami.

• A 30-foot fishing boat that washed up along Gleneden Beach on Feb. 5. Ironically, the boat beached just days before Japanese environmentalists, concerned about debris scattered across the Pacific by the tsunami, arrived to help clean Oregon beaches.

And much more tsunami debris is expected to hit the West Coast in the coming months, experts say. The Japan Ministry of the Environment estimates that 5 million tons of debris was washed into the ocean in the disaster, which claimed nearly 16,000 lives.

About 70 percent of the debris settled on the seabed off Japan. The rest — about 1.5 million tons — is drifting on ocean currents and is expected to arrive on U.S. shores for years.

The debris has to be disposed of — at a cost of $1,500 to $2,500 a boat and, in the case of a floating dock, $84,000, according to Havel.

This 30-foot derelict boat with Japanese writing was removed from Oregon’s Horsfall Beach on Feb. 21.

Along with hazardous waste, non-native marine life clinging to the debris is of particular concern. Biologist Steve Rumrill of the Oregon Fish & Wildlife Department said gooseneck barnacles, mussels, seaweed and other organisms were attached to the most recent boat that came ashore. Samples were sent to Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center for identification.

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“We still can’t predict which will become invasive and which won’t,” Havel says. “Which will become established, self-reproduce and interfere with our coastal environment?”

The problem is significant enough for the state to establish a Tsunami Debris Task Force.

Last June, Gov. John Kitzhaber tapped Gen. Mike Caldwell, director of Oregon’s Office of Emergency Management, to oversee an interagency team charged with incident preparedness and response, public safety, cleanup and public outreach to address marine debris affecting Oregon's coastline.