When the tsunami hit the northern coast of Japan last year, thewaves ripped four dock floats the size of freight train boxcarsfrom their pilings in the fishing port of Misawa and turned themover to the whims of wind and currents. One floated up on a nearby island. Two have not been seen again.But one made an incredible journey across 5,000 miles of ocean thatended this week on a popular Oregon beach. Along for the ride were hundreds of millions of individualorganisms, including a tiny species of crab, a species of algae,and a little starfish all native to Japan that have scientistsconcerned if they get a chance to spread out on the West Coast. |
"This is a very clear threat," said John Chapman, a researchscientist at Oregon State University's Hatfield Marine ScienceCenter in Newport, Ore., where the dock washed up early Tuesday."...It's incredibly difficult to predict what will happen next." State officials organized a group of volunteers Thursday to scrapethe dock clean of marine organisms, bag them and dispose of theminland, said Chris Havel, spokesman for the state Department ofParks and Recreation, which is overseeing the fate of the dock.Biologists have identified one species as a marine algae, known aswakame, that is native to Japan and has established in SouthernCalifornia, but has not yet been seen in Oregon, he said. While scientists expect much of the floating debris to follow thecurrents to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an accumulation ofmillions of tons of small bits of plastic floating in the northernPacific, tsunami debris that can catch the wind is making its wayto North America. In recent weeks, a soccer ball washed up inAlaska, and a Harley Davidson motorcycle in a shipping containerwas found in British Columbia, Canada. How the dock float – 165 tons of concrete and steel measuring66 feet long, 19 feet wide and 7 feet high – turned up onAgate Beach, a mile north of Newport, was probably determinedwithin sight of land in Japan, said Jan Hafner, a computerprogrammer in the University of Hawaii's International PacificResearch Center, which is tracking the 1.5 million tons of tsunamidebris likely floating across the Pacific. That's where the winds, currents and tides are most variable, dueto changes in the coastline and the features of the land, even fortwo objects a few yards apart, he said.
Once the dock float gotinto the ocean, it was pushed steadily by the prevailing westerlywinds, and the North Pacific current. "If you have leaves falling from a tree ... one leaf will be movingin a slightly different direction from another one," Hafner said."Over time, the differences get bigger and bigger and bigger. "Something similar is happening on the ocean." After it came ashore, the Japanese consulate was able to track downthe origin of the dock float from a plaque bolted to itcommemorating its installation in June 2008. Deputy Consul HirofumiMurabayashi said Wednesday from Portland, Ore., that it was one offour owned by Aomori Prefecture that broke loose from the port ofMisawa on the northern tip of the main island during the tsunami.
Akihisa Sato, an engineer with Zeniya Kaiyo Service, the dock'sTokyo-based manufacturer, said the docks were used for loading fishonto trucks. One of them turned up several weeks later on an islandsouth of Misawa, but the other two remain missing. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., called on the National Oceanic andAtmospheric Administration to redouble its efforts to track thedebris, saying something as big as the dock could pose a danger toships at sea. NOAA's tsunami marine debris coordinator, Ruth Yender, said if thePacific were shrunk to the size of a football field, something likethe dock would be the size of a human hair, making it verydifficult to monitor, even from satellites.
The dock tested negative for radiation, which was to be expected ifthe dock broke loose before the nuclear power plant accidenttriggered by the waves, said Havel. Chapman said the dock float was covered with masses of algae, kelp,barnacles, mussels and other organisms. One square-foot areaweighed nine pounds. "This is a whole, intact, very diverse community that floatedacross from Japan to here," he said. "That doesn't happen with alog or a thrown-out tire.
I've never seen anything like this." Of particular concern was a small crab that has run wild on theEast Coast, but not shown up yet on the West Coast, and a speciesof algae that has hit Southern California, but not Oregon. Thestarfish, measuring about three inches across, also appears to benew to U.S. shores. "It's almost certainly true that most of the things on this havenot been introduced to this coast yet," Chapman said. "We're goingto see more of these things coming." Tom Cleveland, a housekeeping supervisor at nearby beachfrontcondominiums, said people curious to see it have been jamming uptraffic at a beach parking lot.
"Everybody and their brother has been here looking at it andchecking it out," Cleveland said. "Obviously, we knew things wouldbe coming our way, but I didn't expect anything this size." ___ Associated Press writers Malcolm Foster in Tokyo and Ryan Nakashimain Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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