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Senators Urge Action Plan, Emergency Resources, To Address Tsunami Debris Threatening Pacific Coast
Posted on Friday, April 06, 2012 (PST)

U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-WA, and Mark Begich, D-AK, have called for a clear federal action plan to address the tsunami debris off the Pacific Coast, following the discovery in March of a tsunami-swept Japanese fishing vessel off the coast of Canada.


In a letter sent to President Obama, the senators called on him to allocate emergency resources to mobilize researchers at the National Science Foundation to help track and respond to tsunami debris.


Expediting NSF grants would help Washington and Alaska coastal communities get more specific estimates of what might hit their shores – and when, the senators said.


Since the Japanese fishing vessel was discovered – the first major tsunami debris expected to make landfall – U.S. officials have learned that larger debris could reach U.S. shorelines sooner than expected. The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration is updating its trajectory models to account for objects that move faster from wind, like boats, but more data and better science is needed to track and respond to approaching tsunami debris.


“We need more data and better science to track and respond to tsunami debris already approaching our coasts,” said Cantwell, member and former chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard. “Hundreds of thousands of jobs in Washington state depend on our healthy marine ecosystems and coastal communities. We can’t wait until tsunami debris washes ashore. We need to have an aggressive plan on how we’re going to deal with it.”


“With the uncertainty around the arrival of tsunami debris from Japan, we need to make sure there is a plan in place and sufficient funds for a prompt response,” said Begich, chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard. “Cuts to the marine debris budget would do undue harm to the safety and well being of Alaska’s expansive coastline and coastal communities. I strongly urge the President to take productive steps to ensure that the jobs and industry supported by marine industries in Alaska and Washington alike are sufficiently protected and out of harm’s way.”


There is currently no plan in place to address a large-scale marine debris event such as the approaching tsunami trash.


Last November, Cantwell and Begich supported key committee passage of an amendment that would identify the debris as a unique threat and require the Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere to develop an interagency action plan to help prepare the West Coast for this potentially serious problem.


Currently, there is no one in charge of this type of response effort. This amendment would authorize NOAA to lead the first interagency effort to address this type of threat.


On March 11, 2011, a devastating earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, sending an enormous amount of debris out to sea. Currently the debris is spread out across an area measuring 2,000 by 1,000 nautical miles, or about five times the size of Washington state. The debris is everything from plastics in everyday life to refrigerators and even parts of cars and homes.


The debris is expected to reach Hawaii later this year and Washington and Alaska early next year. The debris is expected to hit Oregon, California and Mexico sometime during 2013.


A 150-foot Japanese fishing vessel was discovered two weeks ago off the coast of Canada and was confirmed as the first major tsunami debris expected to make landfall on this side of the Pacific Ocean. It could hit British Columbia in approximately 45 days. Since the fishing vessel was discovered, U.S. officials have learned that larger debris could reach our coastlines sooner than expected.


Washington state’s coastal economy supports 165,000 jobs and produces $10.8 billion in economic activity each year. In the greater Seattle area, commercial fishing accounts for 10,000 jobs and gross annual sales of more than $3.5 billion, says Cantwell.


Tourism is the fourth largest industry in the state and supports many coastal communities. According to the Washington Tourism Alliance, visitors to Washington state spent $16.4 billion and generated nearly $1 billion in local and state tax revenues in 2011. Travel and tourism supported more than 150,000, jobs and generated earnings (payroll) of $4.5 million.


The senators’ letter says, “Tsunami debris has the potential to negatively impact international shipping and other maritime transportation, damage our fishing and shellfish industries, harm our robust tourism industry, and impact fragile and pristine shorelines.”


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