More than likely, there will be no body parts or radioactive materials among the Japan tsunami debris that may begin washing up along the main Hawaiian Islands this year, federal officials said last week.
"People shouldn't fear. There is no reason to stop going to the beach. It's not going to come in one tidal wave of trash.
(And) the radioactivity is highly unlikely," said Carey Morishige, Pacific Islands regional coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Marine Debris Program.
While the Japan tsunami debris may not be washing up on Maui County’s shores yet, some debris has washed ashore along the western North American coast. In this photo taken by Canadian Peter Mark in April, a Harley-Davidson motorcycle lies on a beach on Graham Island, in western Canada. Japanese media said the motorcycle, which was lost in last year’s tsunami, washed up on the island about 4,000 miles away. The rusted bike was originally found by Mark in a large white container where its owner, Ikuo Yokoyama, had kept it. The container later washed away, leaving the motorbike partially buried in the sand. Yokoyama, who lost three members of his family in the March 11, 2011, tsunami, was located through the license plate number, Fuji TV reported.
Kyodo News / PETER MARK photo via AP
CAREY MORISHIGE, Pacific Islands regional coordinator for the NOAA’s Marine Debris Program
But Morishige said that doesn't mean that the public shouldn't exercise caution.
"If you don't know what it is, don't touch it. . . . If you think it's something that may be hazardous, call the local authorities," she said.
So far, Morishige, said there haven't been any confirmed sightings of debris from the March 11, 2011, Japan tsunami in Hawaii.
Last week, Morishige, who works out of Oahu, made several presentations on Maui regarding debris from last year's tsunami. Debris, especially bulky items, may reach Hawaii's coastlines between 2014 and 2016, according to computer models, although Morishige said that the more buoyant materials may start arriving this year.
As the tsunami hit Japan on March 11, 2011, much of what was in the inundation zone went into the ocean, according to a NOAA website. As the waters receded, heavier materials sank closer to shore while buoyant materials made up debris fields seen in satellite imagery and aerial photos of waters surrounding Japan. But NOAA said the debris fields are no longer visible, and winds and ocean currents scattered items in the northern Pacific Ocean.
The tsunami was generated by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake in northern Honshu, Japan, which also triggered the failure of reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant complex.
Some people fear that the debris that may reach U.S. shores may be radioactive.
But Morishige said NOAA has spoken to University of Hawaii researchers and officials with the Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Health who all have said it's highly unlikely that the debris will carry radiation above normal levels.
She said one of the reasons for the experts' conclusion is that the tsunami hit days before the failure of the reactors and the debris had already made its way off shore.
She added that the tsunami created debris over a large stretch of Japan, while the leak from the plant was just in one place.
The NOAA website says vessels coming into the U.S. from Japan were monitored for radiation, and readings were below the level of concern. It adds that exposure to contaminated water from the plant, which also moves by currents, was unlikely to occur.
In response to a recent media report that an American oceanographer said to beware of sneakers with bones in them coming over from Japan, Morishige said with certainty that there won't be any fleshy body parts arriving on shore, as they likely would deteriorate or have already become meals for sharks and other predators.
She added that the bones of a foot or a leg would likely fall out of a shoe that has traveled thousands of miles in currents from Japan.
While there have been no confirmed debris findings in Hawaii, Morishige said there have been confirmed findings in Alaska and Canada.
In Alaska, a soccer ball with signatures of Japanese team members was found. The ball was confirmed lost in the tsunami.
In Canada, a motorcycle washed ashore. Authorities were able to confirm that it was lost during the tsunami based on its license plate.
Morishige said that the less-buoyant motorcycle had drifted thousands of miles because at one point it had been in a shipping container that was lined in styrofoam, so "it floated."
Places such as Alaska and the western edges of North America may be seeing debris earlier than Hawaii because of ocean currents and winds.
A NOAA model has shown that some buoyant items have reached the U.S. Pacific Northwest coast over the winter.
Some Hawaii residents suspect they might have come across tsunami debris.
But Morishige said "in most cases" one will not be able to know whether or not the item is from the tsunami.
"Items from Asia, such as buoys or consumer plastics, wash up on the Pacific coast all the time," she said. "It is very difficult to tell where the debris came from without unique identifying information."
For example, glass balls have washed ashore in Hawaii over the years. The glass balls are used as floaters with nets.
Morishige also pointed out that a product such as a soft drink can with Japanese writing on it found on Hawaii's shores could have been bought in the islands.
But when the tsunami debris does show up, Morishige said, Maui residents can expect it to pop up in areas that are already hot spots for debris.
According to aerial surveys by NOAA, Maui can probably expect to see debris show up on shorelines from Kahului heading north along Waihee to Honolua Bay. The shoreline south of Hana was also found to be an isolated hot spot for marine debris.
On Molokai, residents can expect debris to wash up along the northwestern shore. Other pockets that may see debris are along the southwestern part of the island between Kolo Wharf and Hale O Lono Harbor and along the eastern part of the island near Rock Point.
On Lanai, most debris would show up on its windward shores. NOAA reports that the Shipwreck Beach region contains the densest accumulations of derelict fishing gear in the main Hawaiian Islands.
NOAA, along with other government agencies and groups, is already coordinating plans on what to do when the debris shows up, Morishige said.
She said it is difficult to tell how long the debris will hang around the islands, as marine debris can float around for decades, depending on the item and weather conditions.
"While we do not know exactly what debris is still floating at or near the ocean surface, it likely includes highly buoyant materials, such as buoys and other fishing gear, lumber, plastic items of different types, drums and possibly vessels."
Morishige said there have been very few recent at-sea debris sightings.
But the bulk of the debris is likely still dispersed north and east of the Hawaiian archipelago.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at email@example.com.
JAPAN TSUNAMI DEBRIS
* To report a significant debris sighting at sea or onshore or to report debris that can be clearly traced back to an individual or group that one believes has monetary or personal value, send email to DisasterDebris@noaa.gov.
* Information on Japan debris can be found at marinedebris.noaa.gov/info/japanfaqs.html#4.
* For more information on radioactivity and radiation testing, see www.epa.gov/japan2011/index.html.
* To view results of NOAA's aerial surveys on locations where debris typically washes ashore in the main Hawaiian Islands, see www.pifsc.noaa.gov/cred/aerial_surveys.php.