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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.

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The End is In Sight: Summer Should Bring Less Debris to Pacific NW

By: Dianna Parker

Our partners in the Pacific Northwest have noticed an increase in marine debris on shorelines this past month, including small vessels that likely washed out to sea during the tsunami in Japan in 2011. Four boats arrived in Washington over the Memorial Day weekend alone. The flurry of activity may seem unusual and sudden, coming after a relatively long stretch where we still saw some debris — but not this much.  So what’s the deal? Why are we getting a spike now?

Here’s what Amy MacFadyen, oceanographer and modeler in the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division, has to say about possible reasons for the increase:

This seasonal arrival of marine debris—ranging from small boats and fishing floats to household cleaner bottles and sports balls—on West Coast shores seems to be lasting longer into the spring than last year. As a result, coastal managers dealing with the large volume of debris on their beaches are wondering if the end is in sight.


Beachcombers know the best time to find treasure on the Pacific Northwest coast is often after winter storms. Winter in this region is characterized by frequent rainfall (hence, Seattle’s rainy reputation) and winds blowing up the coast from the south or southwest. These winds push water onshore and cause what oceanographers call “downwelling”—a time of lower growth and reproduction for marine life because offshore ocean waters with fewer nutrients are brought towards the coast. These conditions are also good for bringing marine debris from out in the ocean onto the beach, as was the case for this giant Japanese dock that came ashore in December 2012.

So, to recap: Winter winds push nutrient-depleted water onshore and bring debris with it. As Pacific Northwest residents may recall, there were a series of big winter storms in February and March.

Amy goes on to describe a period known as the “spring transition” that can occur anytime between March and June, where a change in winds ushers nearshore surface water back offshore. Then, nutrient-rich water moves in (we call this “upwelling”). The timing of this transition period may also affect the volume of marine debris reaching Pacific Northwest beaches. The later the transition, the more time the debris pushed toward shore from winter storms has to reach shore.

According to researchers, we’re in that transition period now, which means the end to the spike is near:

Interestingly, the model shows many fewer particles came ashore in the spring of 2013 than in the other two years. This may be related to the timing of the spring transition. According to researchers at Oregon State University, the transition to summer’s upwelling conditions occurred approximately one month earlier in 2013 (early April).


The good news for coastal managers—and those of us who enjoy clean beaches—is that according to this indicator, we are finally transitioning from one of the soggiest springs on record into the upwelling season. This should soon bring a drop in the volume of marine debris on our beaches, hopefully along with some sunny skies to get out there and enjoy our beautiful Pacific Northwest coast.


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Not Your Average Homework: High School Students Help Clean Up Tsunami Debris in Alaska

By Margot O’Connell, Guest Blogger

Students from Pacific High School in Sitka, Alaska have teamed up with the marine debris crew at the Sitka Sound Science Center to work as part of our NOAA tsunami marine debris community cleanup project. During their student orientation camping trip in September, we took them out to a beach on Biorka Island near Sitka, where they surveyed the shoreline using the NOAA marine debris protocol and cleaned up everything that they found.

The people of Japan experienced a great human tragedy, and in a way, many of the students at this alternative high school have found that picking up tsunami debris is a metaphor for their own lives. They have faced challenges such as homelessness, family problems, addiction, and the death of a fellow student this year. Basically, they’re more than familiar with the concept of “picking up the pieces” and are using this experience as basis for understanding the magnitude of Japan’s tragedy.

The students spent the rest of their camping trip discussing what that they found and what the tsunami meant for the people of Japan, as well as how the aftermath of the tsunami debris is affecting the rest of the world (in addition to the usual talk of homework and plans for the coming year).

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The trip was a great success, and the kids from Pacific High decided that they didn’t want to stop there. They are continuing to work with the Sitka Sound Science Center and plan on doing another cleanup next September and comparing their results. With the help of their art teacher Heather Bauscher, they have also designed and built an art installation made out of the debris they collected to adorn the halls of their brand new school building. The installation pays tribute to the victims of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.

Lisa Busch, the director of SSSC, will help them put together a radio segment about the work that they have done, which will air on Alaska Public Radio. The project has been an amazing experience so far for both the students and the Sitka Sound Science Center crew. We look forward to seeing all the great work that these kids will do over the coming year!

Margot O’Connell is the Sitka Sound Science Center’s marine debris coordinator.

Sitka Sound Science Center Marine Debris Coordinator. – See more at:


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


GYRE Expedition – Thoughts from Dry Land

By: Peter Murphy

Editor’s note: Peter Murphy, the Alaska Regional Coordinator for the NOAA Marine Debris Program, was recently invited to participate in the GYRE Expedition, an innovative and unique project planned by the Alaska SeaLife Center that brought together scientists, removal experts, educators and artists aboard the R/V Norseman to observe, discuss and explore the issue of marine debris in Alaska and work on ways to raise awareness nationwide.

It’s been a few weeks since we got back on shore after the GYRE Expedition.  A few weeks to get caught up on email (and get behind again), but also a few weeks to think back on the trip and what the team saw and learned, both on the beaches and from each other. For me, as part of the NOAA Marine Debris Program, this trip was a valuable chance not only to collect monitoring data in remote and frequently inaccessible locations, but to participate in dialogue about the science work we normally do and the impressions and expressions that artists draw from debris.  The results of this dialogue will hopefully provide us with new tools to raise awareness of the issue and prevent debris in the future.

Here’s a quick recap of what we did:

The seven day trip was packed, aided by the long Alaskan summer daylight (sunset was after 11:00 p.m., with sunrise just a few short hours later).  We started out in Seward, where we met the boat and were briefed on the trip ahead.  From there, we moved to Gore Point, a very high density catcher beach, where we met with Chris Pallister of Gulf of Alaska Keeper. He and his team have been cleaning the beach for each of the last six years, including 2007-2008, when they removed over 20 tons of debris from less than a mile of shoreline.   There were piles of logs sometimes 10-15 feet high, evidence of the force of the winter storms that bring debris ashore here.

From there, we transited to Shuyak Island, where we had the chance to visit multiple beaches and bays, collecting monitoring data and debris for further analysis on-board the boat.  Odile Madden, of the Smithsonian Institute, brought with her several tools capable of analyzing substances for composition, a potentially valuable tool for better understanding debris sources in the future.  We also met with Andy Schroeder of Island Trails Network, who came to Alaska with the Coast Guard and later transitioned his kayaking guiding experience to begin to clean the remote beaches he saw littered with debris, bringing in volunteer and school groups from as far away as New York City.

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The next day, on Afognak Island, we rendezvoused with Colleen Rankin, a debris cleanup veteran, at her home in Blue Fox Bay and heard about her cleanup efforts. Colleen hauls debris from miles away back to her lodge, where she re-uses whatever she can and stores the rest for eventual disposal.  She’s even insulated a room of a cabin with foam debris pieces she found on the beaches (after some cleaning). Our last stop on the trip was at Hallo Bay, where we met with National Park Service (NPS) staff to help ferry the nearly 4 tons of debris that they gathered on the beaches back to our vessel for eventual disposal in Seward. This highlights one of the challenges of debris cleanups in remote locations like Alaska; even once you’ve picked up the debris, you have to find a way to dispose of it.  Going back ashore the next day, we got the chance to do a little beach cleanup of our own and see the plot where NPS had been doing its own debris monitoring.  Despite a close encounter with a few of the local residents (Hallo Bay is famous first for its bears), we departed safe and sound for Seward, debris and data laden.  Throughout the trip and on the transit back, the diverse background, trainings and perspectives of the team made for lively and thought-provoking discussions on the issue.  In going through my notes, a few key themes kept coming up:

  1. Alaska is a very big place. This is not news, and any Alaskan will not be shy to tell you this, but this trip certainly is a good microcosm of that fact.  The Norseman traveled right around 500 miles during the expedition, and as you can see, the places we visited are basically in the same neighborhood when it comes to Alaska.

  2. There’s a lot of debris, but a lot of beauty too. Over the course of the trip, we certainly saw a lot of debris.  The scale can sometimes be deceiving.  You drive up to a beach on a boat and only see a few floats, but as you get closer, you start to see the smaller pieces.  Despite that, we also saw displays of nature we’re working to preserve: whales and porpoises, seals and otters, and even the occasional bear (not a NOAA trust resource, but they definitely interact with debris!).

  3. There’s an active, innovative and positive debris community. The debris problem is big and multi-faceted, so it can seem overwhelming. But having had the chance to meet with people on the beaches they’ve worked hard to clean, and listen to stories of the ways they’ve come up with to do that work, shows how much difference a few people can make.

  4. Humans are the source of debris and the solution. Every piece of debris we found on beaches came from one source – people.  Whatever country it came from, it still was manufactured by people for use by people.  Cleanups on the beaches (and in the water) help reduce the amount of debris in the ocean, but preventing more debris is the key as Chris, Andy and Colleen all agreed.  That prevention takes people changing their behavior, not just at sea but on land, where data shows more than 80 percent of all marine debris starts.  Hopefully this trip is part of the awareness that leads to those changed behaviors.

Overall, this expedition was a great experience, and it gave us the opportunity to gather and share information and perspectives with a diverse group of people who all care about the issue of marine debris.  We got to interact with the marine debris community in Alaska in the places they have dedicated their time and energy to preserve.  These interactions are a good reminder of the combination of scientific research, on-the-ground removal, and awareness raising outreach that it will take to address the issue of marine debris.


How to Handle Wood Debris

By: Nir Barnea, Pacific Northwest Regional Coordinator

Logs and wood debris are common along U.S. West Coast states and Alaska. This year, however, beachgoers – even in Hawaii – may see a larger amount of logs and milled lumber debris on our coastal beaches, such as small beams and other structural lumber.

It is possible that some of these items are from the March 2011 tsunami in Japan and are just now reaching our shores. Wood typically floats lower in the water and may not move as fast as items like Styrofoam, empty plastic bottles, and floats that have arrived on U.S. shorelines in increased numbers for more than a year.

Handling Wood Debris
Remove wood debris, or leave it in place?
 In most cases, leave it in place. Unless the wood is treated, or contains a lot of nails and other metal, the wood – an organic material – should stay on the beach, decay, and become part of the ecosystem.

Report wood debris? In most cases, there is no need to report wood. If the item is unusual and you believe that it is Japan tsunami marine debris (see above right photo), report it as you would any other item of particular interest.

What about marine growth on wood debris?  Most species on wood debris are not invasive and may be left alone to decay with the wood. For example, many of the tsunami debris items we’ve come across had pelagic gooseneck barnacles attached to them, a common marine organism that is not invasive. Here are a few examples of non-invasive organisms, courtesy of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife:

Aquatic invasive species experts have been collecting samples and studying the species found on marine debris, including the Japan tsunami marine debris. For more information on invasive species go to and

In Washington State, you may report any item you suspect may be harboring invasive species to 1-855-WACOAST. Please provide date and time, location (GPS coordinates if available), and general description. For more information, go to

Please continue to report items that you believe are related to the Japan tsunami to or check out all of the sightings reported to NOAA.