Federal and state authorities are trying to locate, track and hopefully sink at sea a floating dock that could be tsunami debris from Japan, a state Department of Land and Natural Resources spokeswoman said Thursday.
The floating dock about 20 by 40 feet was discovered by a Maui fisherman Sept. 17 as he was looking for the KC2 buoy, about 30 miles north of Maui. The fisherman, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Maui News last week that he located the dock again Sept. 19, north of Molokai, about 15 miles off Halawa Valley.
That is the last sighting of the dock, which resembled a Japanese fishing dock that washed ashore in Oregon over the summer.
This dock, which may be tsunami debris from Japan, was seen floating about 15 miles off of Molokai by a Maui fisherman Sept.19. It has not been seen since and state officials are seeking help from boaters and pilots to locate the debris.
It had four small rollers on its sides, a pipe bent to the side, a post with an electrical box, and Japanese writing on a plaque. The crew member who went aboard the dock and saw the plaque said that the Japanese writing matched those found on a plaque that he saw in an image of the dock that washed ashore in Oregon.
The dock is believed to be one of three reported missing from Japan after the March 2011 tsunami, a DLNR news release said. The Japan Consulate in Honolulu has been notified and, if the dock is located again, will work with DLNR and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to confirm the dock's origin.
The hazard to vessels at sea and the potential for introduction of invasive species have led DLNR to put out a call to boaters and small-plane pilots to help locate the dock with GPS points.
"Please let us know," said Deborah Ward, DLNR information specialist, adding that it's been more than a week since the dock has been sighted. Modeling is only as accurate as the latest information, she indicated.
Based on a report Tuesday of Styrofoam found on a rocky north Molokai shoreline, DLNR arranged for a Maui helicopter contractor Wednesday to search the northern coasts of Molokai and Lanai. The three-hour flight turned up nothing, said Ward. Styrofoam is one of the components believed to add floatation to the concrete dock.
The U.S. Coast Guard conducted three flights between Molokai and Oahu on Sept. 21 and Saturday that failed to turn up the dock, DLNR said.
Once the dock is located, DLNR plans to intercept, place tracking buoys and dispose of it at sea, said Ward. To prevent possible introduction of invasive species from the dock that's floated around the northern Pacific Ocean for over a year, it is safer for the ocean environment to dispose of the dock at sea rather than on land, said Ward.
That is why "early notice" is critical, she added.
The latest modeling Wednesday had the dock floating northeast toward Kauai, said Ben Sherman, a NOAA spokesman in Washington, D.C. That is based on the Sept. 19 sighting.
"Nobody has seen it since," he said Thursday. "We don't know where it is."
Because the dock is flat and floating only a few feet out of the water, the dock might not be easily visible at sea, he said.
"Looking for debris in the open ocean is like looking for a single human hair on an athletic field," Sherman said.
Still, not being able to locate the elusive dock is "frustrating because it is a potential hazard to public safety," he said.
He noted that only 12 pieces of debris have been confirmed as originating from Fukushima, Japan, following the earthquake-tsunami last year. Last week, a blue fishing cube was declared the first piece of tsunami debris identified in Hawaiian waters.
As for the Oregon dock, the state of Oregon moved the dock away from the water's edge, cut it up and hauled it away, said Sherman.
Scientists warned that the 1.5 tons of seaweed, mussels, barnacles and starfish attached to the dock represented an environmental threat as invasive species. Volunteers scraped it all off, buried it above the high-water line, and sterilized the dock with torches, according to published reports.
Those with information about the dock or any other potential tsunami debris may call DLNR at (808) 587-0400 or send email to NOAA at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Lee Imada can be reached at email@example.com.