NOAA's Marine Debris Blog

Keepin' the Sea Free of Debris!

Leave a comment

Marine Debris, Five Years After the Japan Tsunami

The tsunami that struck Japan five years ago today was one of the worst natural disasters in the nation’s history. Many lives and property were lost and after all that destruction, there was another impact to address: marine debris. The tsunami swept countless debris items into the Pacific Ocean, many of which eventually made their way across to North American shores. The NOAA Marine Debris Program (MDP) was very involved in addressing this debris. Learn more on our website and check out this blog by MDP Director Nancy Wallace that was posted by NOAA earlier today.

Despite the enormous devastation that resulted from this natural event, the stories of kindness, connection, and resilience remind us of the strength of those that were affected and that goodness can still be present in the wake of terrible circumstances.

One such story is the connection made between Del Norte and Takata High School students—teenagers from across the Pacific that were connected by a piece of marine debris. A small boat, used in Japan by Takata High School for marine science lessons, found its way to California after the tsunami struck. Del Norte High School students and their teachers restored the boat and worked with various partners to return it to Japan. In the years since, the schools have nurtured this connection with exchange trips between them (learn more about this story from this article or this blog post). This is a reminder of the partnerships that were forged out of this horrible event and the way the ocean connects us all.

The vessel lost by Takata High School, covered in algae and mussels.

The vessel lost by Takata High School arrived on California shores, where it was restored and then returned to its owners in Japan. (Photo Credit: Lori Dengler, Humboldt State University)

Similarly, many small vessels have washed ashore on Hawaii following the 2011 tsunami. One in particular, the 20-foot fishing boat Daini Katsu Maru, is being returned to Japan to be incorporated into a memorial display. It is due to arrive home today. Learn more about this story here.

Another story of connection includes a soccer ball that was found on a remote Alaskan island. Covered in Japanese writing, the ball was traced back to 16 year-old Misaki Murakami, who had lost it along with the rest of his possessions during the tsunami. He had received the ball as a gift from classmates, whom had written words of encouragement and friendship on the ball. After a trip across the Pacific Ocean, the soccer ball was returned to its rightful owner. For more on this story, check out this blog post.

The soccer ball with Japanese writing on it that was returned to 16 year-old Misaki Murakami after being found in Alaska in 2012.

The soccer ball that was returned to 16 year-old Misaki Murakami after being found in Alaska in 2012. (Photo Credit: David Baxter)

Five years later, the effects of the 2011 tsunami in Japan are still felt and debris continues to wash upon our shores. However, the strength and resilience of the people most affected by this event, the connections and partnerships that were formed, and the lessons that were learned to help us in the future all begin to bring a little light to a dark day.


Barge Carrying Debris Arrives in Seattle After Removal Efforts

By: Peter Murphy

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON — a football-field sized barge carrying nearly 3,400 super-sacks of marine debris from remote and rugged beaches from Alaska and British Columbia docked at the Waste Management facility in Seattle, Washington, Thursday morning.

The Concept

The Concept

The barge traveled thousands of miles from Seattle up to Alaska before its return. Its arrival this week marked the culmination of debris removal efforts across the marine debris community in Alaska for the past several years, coordinated by Gulf of Alaska Keeper and funded in large part by a generous goodwill gift from the Government of Japan administered by NOAA and the State of Alaska.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A diverse team including participants from the National Park Service, non-profit organizations, professional crews, and volunteers from across the state collaborated to collect the debris.  The debris, which was placed into large plastic bags called super-sacks, or tied into bundles, included everything from nets, lines and buoys to consumer plastics and different kinds of foam, including a significant amount of Japan tsunami marine debris. Over the course of the three weeks, from the barge’s first pickup to its arrival in Seattle, helicopters made 1,154 trips from shore to the boat, delivering enough debris to fill nearly 40 rail cars to the brim.

The marine debris issue in Alaska provides unique challenges. It takes innovation and perseverance from the community that works there to meet those challenges and address the issue.  That community includes Gulf of Alaska Keeper, who has been working on this issue for years and was the driving force behind this project, and many others, from Craig and Sitka in Southeast Alaska, all the way to the Arctic, where the National Park Service and communities are working to assess and remove debris.

As we recognize the accomplishment of the barge/airlift project, we also look forward to sharing more of these stories from the marine debris community in Alaska and how they are tackling the issue in different and innovative ways in and through their own communities.

1 Comment

New Report: Detecting Marine Debris At Sea

By: Marine Debris Program staff

Imagine this common scenario: you’re looking into the horizon over the ocean, and you have just spotted an object in the distance. It’s faint and you know something is there, but you can’t quite make out what it is. Chances are, unless you get closer, you may never know exactly what you saw.

This is just one of many challenges scientists and responders face when detecting marine debris in the open ocean, according to a report published today by the NOAA Marine Debris Program. The report is a review of the debris detection efforts that took place in the years following the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in 2011, as well as valuable lessons for the future of marine debris detection.

Federal, state, and local partners focused on finding JTMD through several detection methods, including observations from aircraft, unmanned aircraft systems, vessels, shoreline observers, and satellites. NOAA paired detection with modeling in order to focus detection resources on areas where the debris was most likely to be located, given the large area of ocean where the debris dispersed.

A boat from Japan observed by mariners in the North Pacific is towed to land. Credit: P. Grillo.

A boat from Japan observed by mariners in the North Pacific is towed to land. Credit: P. Grillo.

While there was significant involvement and engagement from the public and agencies at the federal, state and local level in finding JTMD, many of the lessons-learned illustrated the significant challenges and limitations that come into play when searching for diverse objects in a very large area of the ocean. The report explores each detection method used during the response, as well as the limitations of each method and possible actions to overcome the limitations.

Because of the extensive efforts and renewed interest in at-sea detection during the response, the marine debris community learned more about marine debris’ behavior and movement and has advanced the state of knowledge on detection of debris at-sea.

Read the full report.

Leave a comment

Japanese Village Sign Found in Hawaii Returns Home

By: Dianna Parker

A large weathered sign that was once part of a Japanese village is going home today, thanks to collaboration between the State of Hawaii, Hawaiian Airlines, the NOAA Marine Debris Program, and Japanese officials. Hawaiian Airlines will fly the sign from Honolulu to Sendai Airport, where a delegation from Tanohata village will greet it.

The sign, which was ripped from Tanohata in Japan’s Iwate Prefecture during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, washed up on Kahuku Beach in Oahu, Hawaii last September. After learning that the sign’s broken lettering says “Shimanokoshi village housing,” NOAA and the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources were able to work with the Japanese consulate in Hawaii to determine its origin.

When they learned the sign had been found, representatives from Tanohata requested that the irreplaceable memento be returned. DLNR approached Hawaiian Airlines for assistance, and they volunteered to ship the sign back on a routine flight at no cost.

“This effort is a great example of collaboration between government agencies and industry, working together toward the spirit of Aloha and goodwill,” said Nancy Wallace, director of the Marine Debris Program. “We hope to continue strengthening these partnerships to assist the Japanese people as they recover.”

According to Japan Counsel General Toyoei Shigeeda, based in Honolulu, the village will use it as an exhibit “for future generations to learn about and understand the tsunami disaster of March 11, 2011.” He said, “We’re all excited that now, more than three years after the tsunami, this sign can be returned as a reminder and symbol of what was lost.”

NOAA has received more than 2,000 reports of potential tsunami debris to its email address, but only about 45 have been definitively traced back to the tsunami. Twenty of those items were found in Hawaii.



Where Are We Now? Tsunami Debris Three Years Later

By: Nancy Wallace, Marine Debris Program Director

Last month, six high school students from California visited Rikuzentakata, a city in Japan’s Iwate Prefecture that was nearly destroyed three years ago today by a massive earthquake and tsunami. On the agenda was a visit to Takata High School and its 20-foot boat, now home again after several years and a long voyage across the Pacific Ocean.

The boat, which Takata High School used for marine science lessons, washed away during the tsunami and landed in Crescent City, California in April 2013. The Del Norte High School students, with the help of their teachers, restored the boat and worked alongside Del Norte County and various groups to return it to Japan.

This tremendous story – a bright spot in an on-going human tragedy – is about friendship, cooperation, and bonds across an enormous ocean. For us in the NOAA Marine Debris Program, it’s also a reflection of the partnerships that have formed between responders here in the U.S. and our remarkable counterparts in Japan, as we enter the third year of addressing debris items that wash ashore.

Where are we now?

On these major commemorative days, we’re often asked the big questions. “What is happening with the debris?” and “Was this what you expected?” Here’s what we know:

Debris from the tsunami is still washing ashore in the United States, but the amount is less than what we saw in previous years. Its arrival is widely scattered and unpredictable, in terms of what, when, and where, as it has been since the first piece of confirmed debris – a 170-foot squid vessel – showed up off the coast of British Columbia in March 2012.

We expect this pattern to continue, until the debris eventually blends in with the marine debris that plagues our ocean every day. The remaining tsunami debris is not in a mass, so the dispersed items could swirl around with currents for years before reaching land. Or, they could sink, as much of it has likely already done.

Over the past several years, Hawaii, California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, and British Columbia have all seen varying amounts and types of debris gradually wash ashore. In some cases, near-identical pieces of debris washed up in different states months apart. NOAA has received nearly 2,000 debris reports to our email address, and as of today, we have confirmed 41 of those items to be tsunami debris, including vessels, buoys, sports balls, signs, canisters, floating piers, and a motorcycle in a shipping container. While there is likely much more tsunami debris out there, it’s very difficult to tell where debris comes from without unique identifying information. If a piece of debris is suspected to be from the tsunami, NOAA works with the Japanese government to identify these items if possible.

As to whether or not this is what we expected, it’s safe to say yes – for the most part. I wrote two years ago, when we were first faced with this unprecedented situation, that we believed highly buoyant items would be the most likely to survive a trip across the ocean. That’s what we have seen. Since we did not know exactly what those items were or where they were, we prepared for all scenarios along with our state partners.

Bonds forged for the future

What we perhaps did not realize, as we geared up our initial response, was how deep the partnerships between all stakeholders would become. As months went by and debris washed up piece by piece, the scenarios and plans turned to real action. The action became more routine and the coordination more efficient. What has happened, in the three years we have worked on this issue, is that we now have a solid network of marine debris responders in our Pacific states.

Marine debris has always been a hot issue in this region, and groups from every corner of every state have worked on keeping debris out of the ocean for decades. This is the foundation for response when we experience significant, severe marine debris events from natural disasters. Federal partners, state and local agencies, tribes, academics, and even beachgoers have had a place in it. The unprecedented is now precedent.

The Government of Japan and its consulates have been key partners, and we are grateful for the support they have lent us, even as they work to rebuild what was lost. NOAA alone does not have the resources to launch a large-scale removal effort, but with the generous support of Japan, the cleanup can continue. The friendship and cooperation we have established will certainly play a role down the road as we continue to examine the larger marine debris issue.

As the students from Del Norte High School found out, the ocean does not separate us from each other – it connects us – and that can be an advantage.  The NOAA Marine Debris Program will continue to leverage this strong network and apply lessons learned as we move forward in the years to come.

For more information about tsunami debris, please visit


No solid mass of debris from Japan in the Pacific

By: NOAA Marine Debris Program staff

We’ve heard concern from some of you that there’s an island of debris in the Pacific Ocean coming from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. For those of you who may be new to this topic, we’d like to address those concerns.

Here’s the bottom line: There is no solid mass of debris from Japan heading to the United States.

At this point, nearly three years after the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, whatever debris remains floating is very dispersed. It is spread out so much that you could fly a plane over the Pacific Ocean and not see any debris, since it is spread over a huge area. Most of the debris is small, hard-to-see objects.

We have some helpful resources for you, if you’re interested in learning more.

While there likely is some debris still floating at sea, the North Pacific is an enormous area, and it’s hard to tell exactly where the debris is or how much is left. A significant amount of debris has already arrived on U.S. and Canadian shores, and it will likely continue arriving in the same scattered way over the next several years. As we get further into the fall and winter storm season, NOAA and partners are expecting to see more debris coming ashore in North America, including tsunami debris mixed in with the “normal” marine debris that we see every year.

NOAA has modeled the debris’ movement, and the model shows the overall spread of all simulated debris and an area where there may be a higher concentration of lower floating debris (such as wood) in one part of the Pacific. However, that doesn’t mean it’s in a mass, and it doesn’t tell us how much is there, it just shows there may be more debris there than in other areas. Observations of the area with satellites have not shown any debris.

Even though there’s no mass, addressing this debris is very important. NOAA has worked with partners in the states to monitor the debris, form response plans, and try to mitigate any impacts. We’ll continue that work as long as necessary. We’re happy to answer any questions you may have. Feel free to email us at


CA Students Work to Return Vessel to Japan

By: Sherry Lippiatt

Students and teachers at Del Norte High School in Crescent City, CA posted a touching video about their effort to return a small boat to Takata High School in Rikuzentakata, a city in Japan. The boat, which was reportedly used for the school’s science program, washed away from Takata during the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated parts of Japan. It made its way to Crescent City in April, intact but covered in marine growth. Check out the video here: