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Japan Tsunami Marine Debris

NOAA marine debris director looks back five years later.

Five years ago, Japan was hit with one of the worst natural disasters in its history. The 9.0 magnitude earthquake, and tsunami that followed, claimed nearly 16,000 lives, injured 6,000 more, and damaged or destroyed countless structures and property.

Unfortunately, the effects of these natural events did not stop there. The Government of Japan estimated that 5 million tons of debris was carried into the Pacific by the massive tsunami wave. Although the magnitude of this pales in comparison to the amount of human loss and suffering brought about by these events, Japan tsunami marine debris is something that we at NOAA are still addressing five years later.

66 ft floating dock. Photo credit: Oregon Dept. of Parks and Recreation.

Items that have been confirmed as marine debris from the tsunami included buoys, sports balls, signs, canisters, this 66-foot floating dock, many smaller fishing vessels, and even a motorcycle in a shipping container. Photo courtesy of Oregon Dept. of Parks and Recreation.

Marine debris poses a serious threat to marine life, the environment, navigation safety, the economy, and human health.  Determining where marine debris comes from and how it travels in the ocean is challenging. Movement of marine debris is determined by currents, winds, weather events, and the characteristics of the debris items themselves. NOAA's Marine Debris program, which began 10 years ago, investigates and prevents the impacts of marine debris on our oceans and coasts.  Over those 10 years, NOAA has accomplished a lot, including: supporting research, prevention, and removal projects, developing education and outreach tools, and raising awareness about marine debris.  Since the tsunami, NOAA has made progress in understanding how debris travels, and refined our modeling efforts. 

With the help of a generous goodwill gift of $5 million from Japan, NOAA has worked closely with the states and local partners to monitor and respond to tsunami debris found on U.S. shorelines.

Through NOAA's efforts, we all gained knowledge of the behavior and movement of marine debris, improved detection methods, developed protocols to respond to invasive species, and built a solid network of marine debris responders in our Pacific states, as well as with Canadian and Japanese partners. This network will allow for more efficient responses in the future as we continue to examine the larger marine debris issue.

Five years after this devastating disaster, I visited the Tohoku region of Japan, which was severely impacted by the earthquake and tsunami.   While the focus of my trip was to discuss the ongoing impacts of tsunami debris on North American shorelines, I left with a profound and greater understanding about the resilience of these communities. I was struck not only by how far inland the water extended and the amount of destruction that occurred on that terrible day, but by the resilience of the Japanese people. Communities are being rebuilt and the strength and resolve of the people there is inspiring.

Nancy Wallace 
Director, NOAA Marine Debris Program
National Ocean Service