California Coastal Commission

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Japan Tsunami Debris Cleanups

Urethane foam pictures taken August 27, 2012 near Beach River on Montague Island. Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation
Urethane foam pictures taken August 27, 2012 near Beach River on Montague Island.
Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation
Join us in helping to clean up tsunami debris! We are mobilizing people all along the California coast to clean up debris that was washed away from Japan during the March 2011 tsunami. Cleanups will take place quarterly in all coastal counties. Check the calendar of events to find out how to help.


What is Tsunami Debris?

In this case, we are referring to debris caused by the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and resulting tsunami that hit the coast of Japan on March 11, 2011. The tsunami waves reached up to 133 feet in height and devastated an area of close to 220 square miles. Almost 16,000 people were killed due to this event, a human tragedy of massive and terrible scale. The damage also included close to 25 million tons of debris, of which 5 million tons was washed out to sea, as estimated by the Japanese Ministry of the Environment. The Japanese Government further estimates that about 30 percent of that 5 million tons of debris, or 1.5 million tons, was buoyant enough to wash away from the coast of Japan and enter the Pacific Ocean currents. A portion of the debris will end up on the U.S. west coast.

Japanese soccer ball found in Alaska. Photo credit: David Baxter
Japanese soccer ball found in Alaska. Photo credit: David Baxter


When do we expect it to arrive?

Tsunami debris has already arrived on the west coast, and will continue to do so. The original projections showed the debris arriving along the West Coast by March of 2013. However, debris started to arrive much earlier than expected. For example, in March 2011, a derelict fishing vessel floated into the waters off British Columbia and was eventually sunk by the Coast Guard. Further confirmed tsunami debris has been found at locations along the West Coast since then, including items as small as a soccer ball that belonged to a 16-year old (the ball was eventually returned) to as large as a Harley Davidson motorcycle and even large docks on the Oregon coast in June 2012 and the shores of Olympic National Park in Washington State in December 2012. The first confirmed tsunami debris to land in California was a 20-foot boat in Crescent City on April 7, 2013.

Researchers expect a new influx of floating debris every spring and early summer for the next three years or so.


What is the Coastal Commission doing about it?

As the leader of the state's largest volunteer beach cleanup programs—California Coastal Cleanup Day and the year-round Adopt-A-Beach Program—the Coastal Commission is in a unique position to help mobilize volunteers to both clean up debris and to gather critical information to determine when and where debris from the tsunami is hitting California's shores.

Beginning in January, 2013, the Commission launched a new initiative, the Tsunami Debris Cleanup Project. By partnering with organizations along the coast, we will conduct at least four cleanups in each coastal county, one per quarter. The cleanups will take place at the same locations each time, and volunteers will collect data on a new data card. The data will focus specifically on those debris items that could potentially have come from the tsunami. By comparing the data at each site over the course of the cleanups, we will be able to see if there are any trends being established that could provide us with a clearer idea about the tsunami debris' location, amount, and impact.
Cleaning up Ocean Beach in San Francisco
Cleaning up Ocean Beach in San Francisco

Download the Coastal Commission's Tsunami Debris Data Card.

The Commission could not run a program like this without strong partnerships with non-profit organizations along the coast. Our partners for the Tsunami Debris Cleanups include: This new project is supported by the sponsors of the Commission's Annual California Coastal Cleanup Day and by a generous grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services (CalOES).

Join us to volunteer for a tsunami debris cleanup!

If the posted event times don't work for you, or you'd like to start your own cleanups, the Coastal Commission can help! We can provide supplies, guidance, and recognition. Please contact Eben Schwartz at for more information.

Beach cleanup


Other Frequently Asked Questions about the Tsunami Debris

Why can't we find the debris out in the ocean and stop it before it reaches shore?
As much as we would love to be able to capture debris out at sea, it is a common misconception that there are giant patches of floating debris in the Pacific. In fact, the tsunami debris dispersed rapidly—within one month, the debris field was no longer visible by overflight—so it is likely to have spread out over hundreds if not thousands of miles of ocean, making observation, much less capture, of the debris next to impossible. In addition, great uncertainty remains as to how much of the debris from the tsunami remains afloat, and how much more of it may impact the West Coast of the United States. Ocean currents are difficult to map and predict, as they shift with weather and season. Due to this, predictions are not reliable and in fact, debris from the tsunami began to arrive at locations along the West Coast well before it was expected.

This is true for non-tsunami-related debris as well. Much of the debris in the Pacific—even that located in the area known as the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch"—has broken down into small bits that are too small to see with the naked eye, even from as close as the deck of a boat. It is also widely dispersed, and even at various depths in the ocean. So removal of this debris would be extremely difficult and enormously expensive.

How do we know it's Tsunami Debris and not debris that was already in the ocean?
Most tsunami debris will be difficult to identify as having definitively come from the tsunami. NOAA and the Japanese Government use positive identifiers such as Vessel Identification Numbers or ownership information to trace debris back to the area affected by the tsunami. But the vast majority of the debris will not have such easily identifiable markings. Debris with Japanese or other Asian characters on it regularly washes up on California's shores every year, so definitively tracing back any individual piece of debris to the tsunami will be difficult. That is why the Coastal Commission is collecting data on potential tsunami debris at multiple locations throughout the year. If we can establish an upward trend in this type of debris at any location(s) along the coast, then we can make a strong case that tsunami debris is indeed arriving at that location, even if positive identifiers are not present.

Will the Tsunami Debris be dangerous?
Dock in Olympic National Park, Dec. 21, 2012. Photo courtesy of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
Dock in Olympic National Park, Dec. 21, 2012.
Photo courtesy of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
It is unlikely to be dangerous to people, or at least not significantly more so than the debris that normally washes up on California's beaches each year.

There is certainly the danger that there will be more hazardous waste washing up on our shores, as the tsunami washed away entire villages and all of the potentially hazardous waste that would be associated with them. For example, there's a real potential for an increase in kerosene canisters on our beaches, as the area that was affected in Japan was known for using kerosene to heat their homes. Emergency responders at CalEMA are ready to respond to any suspicious item that is found during any of our beach cleanups, and our volunteers are cautioned not to pick up anything that might be a danger.

To wildlife, however, the tsunami debris poses a different set of dangers. Marine debris already poses a significant threat to the marine wildlife of the Pacific. Any increase in the amount of that debris would naturally increase the potential harm.

As our friends at Ocean Conservancy explain: "Debris washing ashore around the Northwest Hawaiian Islands could damage reefs, introduce invasive species and impact the Laysan and black-footed albatross, Hawaiian monk seal, green sea turtle, and other threatened and endangered species. Derelict fishing gear could threaten seabirds and migratory Pacific species like bluefin tuna, green and leatherback sea turtles, mako and blue sharks, and whales that use North Pacific waters to forage, breed and migrate."

    From Ocean Conservancy's website:

Will the Tsunami Debris be Radioactive?
The tsunami washed debris out to the ocean days before the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant released radioactive waters to the ocean off Japan, so it is considered highly unlikely that any of the debris that washes up in California will be radioactive. This has been confirmed by on-the-ground testing—every item that has been proven to come from the area affected by the tsunami has been tested, and none of them has shown elevated levels of radioactivity. Nevertheless, this is an issue about which we remain vigilant. Again, with help from CalEMA, we will have qualified emergency responders ready to help if our volunteers come across anything they suspect to be dangerous.

What about Threats from Invasive Species?
Invasive species were not considered a threat from this event until the dock washed up in Newport, Oregon encrusted with close to 100 different species on it. Among them were several that were on Oregon's "Most Watched" list for highly invasive species. Scientists did not expect coastal species from Japan to be able to survive the long cross of the Pacific through mostly pelagic (open-ocean) waters. Similarly, they do not expect pelagic species that attach themselves to debris to be able to survive in near-coastal environments.

Given the organisms found on the pier in Oregon, the greatest risk for bringing aquatic invasive species is from debris items that were already in the water in the near-coastal environment, such as piers, other marine infrastructure and, to a lesser extent, boats and other vessels. Volunteers are encouraged to bag these items if possible and throw them away as they normally would. If they are too large for removal, contact your local emergency management agency, usually your police, fire, or hazardous materials department.

What can we do about this problem?
The tsunami was a one-time natural disaster that added a huge amount of debris to our shared ocean. But the debris that was washed out to sea is a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of debris we add to the ocean each and every year through the production and consumption of disposable goods. While there is nothing we can do to stop tsunamis from occurring, there is a lot we can do every day to reduce the amount of "potential" marine debris that we are creating.
  1. Reduce the number of single-use, disposable items you use. The more that we use and throw away, the more waste we create and more marine debris is the result.

  2. Pick up trash wherever and whenever you can. Most of the debris that enters the ocean off California comes from land-based sources, so even if you think you're far away from the ocean, you can still help keep it clean by picking up after yourself and your community.

  3. Join one of our Tsunami Debris Cleanups, and turn out for California Coastal Cleanup Day!

  4. Do more to save the ocean every single day. Become a Coastal Steward and pledge your support for a clean and healthy coast and ocean.


What We Might Find and Additional Resources

Beach cleanup