Trash Free Seas

What is Tsunami Debris?

As volunteers host cleanups and beachgoers encounter ocean trash, they will be faced with the basic question: What is tsunami debris? Ocean Conservancy scientist Nick Mallos has the answer.

What is tsunami debris? - Tsunami debris discovered on the coasts of Alaska. Photo: NOAA

The earthquake and subsequent tsunami that occurred last March in Japan generated approximately 25 million tons of debris, according to the Japanese Ministry of the Environment. While not all of that debris was washed into the Pacific, the potential impact to the West Coast of the United States could be significant. In fact, some high profile incidents of tsunami debris have already hit the coast.

As volunteers host cleanups and beachgoers encounter ocean trash, they will be faced with the basic question: What is tsunami debris?

Nick Mallos, Ocean Conservancy conservation biologist and debris specialist weighs in on signs that you could be dealing with marine debris:

"Large objects not commonly found in the water and on beaches—like the motorcycle and huge barges that have already made landfall—are likely tsunami debris candidates. In general, though, it will be difficult to distinguish tsunami debris from ocean trash that washes ashore every day."

"Items that have Japanese characters on them will certainly draw more claims of being tsunami-generated; however, trash from around the world routinely washes onto West Coast beaches of North America, so language alone cannot confirm that an item originated from the tsunami."

"While we may not be able to distinguish tsunami debris from ocean trash in many cases, we need to devote greater attention to what’s washing up on our shores so that authorities can be alerted when potential tsunami debris does show up."

Click here for Ocean Conservancy's guidelines on what you should do if you encounter tsunami debris.

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