Officials tracking tsunami debris off Washington coast



SEATTLE — Federal, state and tribal officials are attempting to track a large dock that was reported drifting off the coast of Washington state, one of potentially hundreds of objects that could wash up along the West Coast from the tsunami that struck Japan last year.

The object has not been relocated or confirmed since it was initially reported last Friday by fishermen, Keeley Belva, a spokeswoman with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said Monday.

Fishermen aboard the fishing vessel Lady Nancy reported seeing a large object floating off the coast, about 16 nautical miles northwest of Grays Harbor. The object is similar to a large dock that beached in Oregon over the summer, officials said.

The Coast Guard has been broadcasting alerts to mariners about the floating debris spotted last week, and helicopter crews have also conducted five searches, covering about 320 square miles, in search of the object.

“It doesn’t pose a danger right now to anyone,” said Coast Guard spokesman Robert Lanier, adding that the goal is to locate it, put a data marker on it and track exactly where it goes so agencies can deal with it responsibly.

The Coast Guard is working with NOAA, state agencies and the Quinault Indian nation to track the object.

“We don’t want any mariners to run into it,” said Belva. “We don’t want it to be a safety hazard. We want to prepare for it when it comes ashore and to try to figure out how best to mitigate any damage.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell has pushed through new legislation intended to speed up federal response to marine debris cleanup, the Daily World of Aberdeen reported Sunday.

That legislation was added as an amendment to the Coast Guard authorization bill, HR 2838, and awaits approval by President Barack Obama, the newspaper reported. It directs NOAA’s administrator to form a task force to come up with a tsunami debris cleanup plan.

“The plan would make tsunami debris cleanup more effective by coordinating and directing all debris removal in Washington state and across the West Coast,” Cantwell said in a statement.

NOAA’s Marine Debris Program has been leading efforts to collect data, assess debris and reduce possible impacts to coastal communities and natural resources.

The Japanese government estimated that the March 11, 2011, tsunami swept about 5 million tons of debris into the Pacific Ocean. Most of that sank immediately, while 1.5 million tons were dispersed across the North Pacific Ocean.

NOAA estimates the bulk of what is coming either has arrived or will in the next year or so — but that’s a rough guess.

NOAA has received about 1,400 debris reports in the past year, including bottles and buoys. Of those reports, 17 have been confirmed as definite tsunami debris, including a 20-foot boat, pieces of which were recovered earlier this month in Hawaii.

Last summer, a 165-ton concrete dock became an international sensation after coming to rest on Agate Beach north of Newport, Ore. A commemorative plaque showed it was one of four owned by Aomori Prefecture that broke loose from the port of Misawa on the northern tip of the main island during the 2011 tsunami.