Winter weather likely to bring more tsunami debris


OCEAN SHORES — Nancy Shortt of Moclips makes a personal commitment every day she walks the beach to pick up debris that has steadily washed ashore from the March 2011 tsunami in Japan.

From February through June, Shortt estimates she and several friends hauled more than 400 bags of garbage off the beach from Iron Springs to the Moclips River. Making a plea for more garbage bags and assistance to keep up with the next wave of debris, Shortt told the state Marine Debris Task Force Thursday night that she’s starting to see more accumulate already.

“I need garbage bags,” she said. “I’m willing to do this as a volunteer. I’m grassroots with four other women and we are actually doing something.”

One of the task force officials at the meeting at the Ocean Shores Convention Center quickly volunteered to provide the bags and expressed a keen interest about what Shortt has seen recently on the beach.

“I can get you bags,” said Chuck Matthews of the Department of Ecology’s Southwest region.

“I’m starting to notice where I am that there are bits of Styrofoam. It’s not as extreme as it was last winter yet, but I am starting to notice stuff is showing up,” Shortt told Matthews and other members of the task force.

Ocean Shores crab fisherman Larry Thevik told the task force he questions what potential damage the debris might cause for the crab and fishing industry on the coast.

“I’m not crying wolf, but there is a million and a half tons of debris out there someplace, and it may well affect our coastal crab fleet and our economy, more significantly than people really realize,” Thevik said.

The task force meeting was one of three on the coast to answer questions and receive comments about the state plan for responding to marine debris from the tsunami. The final meeting is 3 p.m. Dec. 5, in Long Beach at the Peninsula Church Center, 5000 “N” Place, Seaview.

Gov. Chris Gregoire established the task force – consisting of the state Military Department’s Emergency Management Division (EMD) and several other state agencies – to coordinate state, federal and local activities. The task force collaborated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to develop the plan.

The plan is designed to address both high-impact types of debris, such a large dock or debris containing a hazardous substance such as oil, as well as a potential steady influx of small nonhazardous debris.

Several of the approximately 50 people in attendance asked about where to deposit debris, noting that the large garbage dumpsters put out last June have been removed since the amount of debris diminished in late summer and fall. One woman reported recently taking some large pieces of Styrofoam off the beach at Ocean Shores and she didn’t know how to dispose of it.

In addition to the state response, local officials gave some specific information for handling the debris.

Ocean Shores Mayor Crystal Dingler urged people to contact the city if they find large debris in Ocean Shores or leave what they haul out at the main beach approaches where it can be picked up.

“Let us know it’s there, and we’ll come out and pick it up,” Dingler said, adding the city also has bags available at the Ocean Shores Permit Center, at the Police Department and the Visitor Information Center.

State parks also have bags available for volunteers who help clean up the debris.

While the state plan establishes which agencies will respond to larger debris or debris that might be considered hazardous, it relies largely on volunteers to clean up much of what is expected to arrive.

Grays Harbor County Deputy Director of Emergency Management Charles Wallace urged local residents to call 911 if they spot anything potentially hazardous.

“That way the local jurisdiction gets notified,” Wallace said. “They can come down, see what’s going on and then they can notify either me or the state directly. The goal is that the local jurisdiction is in the loop here.”

The task force said it will continually update the state marine debris response plan as needed. The plan is available at http://marinedebris.wa.gov/docs/responseplan_marinedebris_09182012.pdf

Washington saw a spike in amounts of marine debris on its coastal beaches in June 2012 but the quantity washing ashore has since decreased significantly. However, fall and winter weather and ocean current patterns typically wash more marine debris ashore than summertime conditions. Predictions are that the debris will show up on Washington’s shores intermittently over the next several years.

“We’ve never had an event like this tsunami before that has washed millions of tons of stuff into the ocean,” said Terry Egan, leading the task force for the state Emergency Management Division. “It’s an unprecedented event making it difficult to prepare for. There are just lots of unknowns that we’re having to deal with.”

What is known, said Nir Barnea, regional director for NOAA’s Marine Debris Program, is that more debris is certain to show up this winter even though it diminished through the fall because of ocean currents and wind patterns.

“We have learned that not all debris moves the same,” Barnea said.

Egan said he believes the state’s plan can be adjusted as needed and resources can be tapped as the debris starts to show up again.

“It brings to bear the strengths of federal, state and local government in Washington state,” he said.

Thevik, a member of the Dungeness Crab Fishermen’s Association, said he continues to be concerned that a large amount of debris could damage crab fixed-gear equipment, especially when many boats will start going out next month.

“So far we have been very fortunate in that there has been little negative impact on our state as a result of debris coming ashore,” Thevik said. “Hopefully, we will not see enough debris come in in concentrated amounts to interact with that gear and sweep it off the ocean. Because that’s what happens when you have floating debris and it tangles with fixed gear.”

Anyone encountering potentially hazardous debris should leave it alone and immediately call the state’s 1-855-WACOAST (1-855-922-6278) number and press “1” to reach an operator who can dispatch responders.

Tsunami debris also can be reported online at disasterdebris@noaa.gov