Story Summary

Japanese tsunami debris washing ashore in U.S.

In March 2011, an earthquake that rocked Japan triggered a massive tsunami, wiping out entire towns. Debris began washing ashore in Hawaii, Canada and along the Washington, Oregon and California coasts in 2012.

Story Timeline
Previous Next
This story has 9 updates

tsunamidebris3OLYMPIA — The Washington Department of Ecology said Friday that crews sent out to clean up increased amounts of debris along 57 miles of the state’s southwest coast collected enough material this week to fill 70 pickup trucks.

“The vast majority of the debris we found was Styrofoam, and it’s hard to say exactly where it came from. We did, however, find some large items with Japanese symbols,” said Shawn Zaniewski, supervisor of one of the Washington Conservation Corps crews cleaning up the beaches.

The state Department of Ecology sent out three six-member WCC AmeriCorps crews after an increase in debris started arriving from last year’s tsunami in Japan.

The WCC crews removed debris from Cape Disappointment north to Moclips, Wash. Besides Styrofoam, pieces of plastic and other debris, crew members also encountered refrigerators, large crates and containers, buoys, ropes and household garbage.

He said crews also found numerous items with Chinese and other Asian writing on them.

WCC member Jered Pomeroy said he saw a steady stream of debris, noting, “We would clear a stretch of beach and – within 20 minutes – more marine debris washed up. Keeping our beaches clear will definitely take a concentrated community effort.”

The WCC crew that cleared the area from Moclips to Ocean Shores consisted of recently returning military veterans. The largest item removed by this crew was a refrigerator-freezer.

WCC crew supervisor Phil Hansen said: “Ocean Shores had the heaviest amount of debris in the north beach area. We had to make several passes along the same stretch of beach due to additional debris coming onshore.”

It is difficult to determine how much of the debris cleaned up by the crews is related to the March 11, 2011, tsunami that devastated Japan and claimed nearly 16,000 lives, injured 6,000 and destroyed or damaged countless buildings.

tsunamispeciesOLYMPIA — The head of the state’s Invasive Species Council said Friday that marine organisms arriving on tsunami debris from Japan present a direct threat to shellfish growers along Washington’s coast.

“This is a multi-species problem,” said Bill Tweit, president of the council, adding that the large dock that washed up on Oregon’s coast carried nearly 30 Japanese organisms, some of them a clear threat.  “There’s a lot of different invasive species on those docks. We’re very concerned at this point.”

Tweit said they have identified at least three high-risk specis – Asian shore crabs, which can decimate fish populations; wakame algae, which can choke and ecosystem; and mussels, which can be carrying diseases that threaten other shellfish.

They “very quickly dominate and fundamentally change an ecosystem, far faster than the ecosystem itself can cope with, or the creatures that live in the ecosystem,” he said.

Because these are a direct threat to shellfish growers in Washington, Tweit said his office is mobilizing people to respond to reports of anything unusual that washes ashore.

“We know this is a big threat, this is severe, it’s an unprecedented threat; we know we’re going to have to deal with it,” he said.

If you think you’ve found tsunami debris on our coast, here’s what you should do: Check for any identifying markers, but don’t touch debris if it looks hazardous or is too big to move. You can send an email to    And if you snap pictures, send them to us at

tsunamidebris2SEATTLE — A running account of tsunami debris finds and debris-related news in and around Washington:

June 20: Large piece of metal, refrigerator, television

A piece of metal initially thought to be a 7-foot airplane fuselage is found at Cranberry Beach in Pacific County along with a 13-inch television set and a refrigerator. Reports are varied as to whether the debris is Japanese or not.

June 18: Wash. Gov. Chris Gregoire requests federal support for debris cleanup

“The federal government is the ultimate lead as our state responds to tsunami debris that washes up on our beaches,” Gregoire says. “But our federal partners need support to protect our coast and keep our citizens safe. There is no better agency to lead coordination than our Emergency Management Division. That agency has the experience and know-how necessary to bring groups together to address a variety of situations.”

June 15: Small fishing boat

A 20-foot fishing boat with Japanese writing on it washes ashore in three pieces at Cape Disappointment State Park in Pacific County.

June 14: Refrigerator

Beachgoers in Moclips, Wash. Find an empty and rusted refrigerator on shore, covered in barnacles.

June 10-12: Possible house, other floatsam

Three professional sea kayakers surveying Washington’s coast for tsunami debris in Neah Bay, the northwest part of the state, find hazardous material including a partially in-tact bathroom from a house. They also find medicine, appliances, and other items.

June 7: Buoy, plastic floats, plastic bottles

A 4×5 foot sealed buoy, five plastic boats, and a few plastic bottles are found in Tillamook County , Oregon.

June 6: Dock

A 132-ton concrete dock lands at Agate Beach, in Oregon.  Reports are that it will cost $84,000 to remove.

April 23: Soccer ball

A soccer ball that washed up in Alaska is traced back to a Japanese teenager, who had written his name on it. It is the first piece of debris to be traced back to a specific owner.

March 24: Fishing boat

Coast Guard officials identify a fishing boat that has floated across the Pacific and is destined for Canada’s Haida Gwaii, formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands.

“This 150-foot fishing vessel is the first major West Coast tsunami debris confirmed by Japanese officials. And now, we’ve learned that larger debris could reach our coastlines sooner than expected. With some debris already moving towards the West Coast, we need more data and better science to track and respond to tsunami debris,” says Senator Maria Cantwell.

kayakersNEAH BAY, Wash. — Three professional sea kayakers surveying Washington’s coast for tsunami debris found what they believe to be remnants of a Japanese house on a beach in northwest Washington, along with hazardous materials, the kayak group known as the Ikkatsu Project said.

In a report filed on the group’s website, they reported they found on June 12 a portion of a house, or at least its bathroom, which they said was partially intact when it first arrived but has broken up on Hobuck Beach in the Makah Reservation because of wave action.

“We found a large quantity of milled lumber, cut to metric dimensions, which was marked with a Japanese stamp and serial number – 5501128. (Preliminary research has suggested that the source of the lumber was originally the Daiwa Pallet Housou Company of Osaka),” the report said.

“The reason we think this was part of a residential bathroom is that we found items consistent with this hypothesis: cough syrup, iodine, a portion of a child’s potty seat, etc. The individual pieces of lumber were in relatively good condition, suggesting that the house, or portion thereof, washed ashore in one piece and then was shattered on the rocks.

“We also came across pieces of a washing machine (the front panel and the rusted hulk of the electric motor), and a red kerosene container which were located near the pile,” the report said.

“It was a sobering experience, poking through the remains of what had obviously been someone’s home, deposited roughly and without ceremony here on a cold and rainy beach, 6000 miles away from where it once stood,” the report said.

Nearly all of the beaches surveyed had some form of hazardous material, some readily identifiable, like kerosene, others unknown, the group said. Samples were taken for scientific observation.

“The multitude of similar containers that is expected to hit the shore over the next few years may well constitute the biggest environmental concern of all. We found hazardous items of one kind or another on every beach we surveyed except one.”

Members of the group were listed as Ken Campbell, Steve Weileman and Jason Goldstein. For the group’s report, click here.

tsunamidebris1OCEAN SHORES, Wash. — It started with a soccer ball and fishing boat washing up in Alaska, then a huge dock was found on an Oregon beach, and Friday another battered boat was found at Washington’s Cape Disappointment State Park.

A massive amount debris washed away from Japan during last year’s tsunami is churning in the Pacific and beginning to make landfall on the West Coast.

Washington’s departments of Ecology, Health, Fish and Wildlife and Washington Parks and Recreation Commission, as well as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, are all charged with ensuring the debris is harmless and helping remove it as it arrives.

On Monday, Gov. Chris Gregoire ordered the state’s Military Department Emergency Management Division (EMD) to take the lead in coordinating the response to such debris.

“The federal government is the ultimate lead as our state responds to tsunami debris that washes up on our beaches,” Gregoire said. “But our federal partners need support to protect our coast and keep our citizens safe. There is no better agency to lead coordination than our Emergency Management Division. That agency has the experience and know-how necessary to bring groups together to address a variety of situations.”

Gregoire also said that she has coordinated with the governors of California, Oregon and Alaska to request federal financial reimbursement for debris management and cleanup efforts. Washington’s Department of Ecology has set aside $100,000 from its budget should it be needed.

The debris has thus far been arriving as a trickle; there is fear however that severe weather could bring huge amounts to area beaches all at once.

“While we expect debris to arrive slowly over the next several years, there’s a chance a major storm could wash up several thousand pounds of debris at once,” Gregoire said. “That will require far more financial resources than our state has available. I’m confident our federal partners will recognize the need to ensure our beaches, our shellfish, and the livelihoods of those living on the coast are safe and protected.”

While beachgoers may be interested in examining the items after their trek across the ocean, state officials are concerned about potentially invasive species that could be found on them.

There is also some concern over radiation contamination after the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster that rocked Japan following the tsunami. So far, no debris has shown any dangerous level of radiation.

“I want to assure citizens that we will do everything we can to keep our beaches clean and safe,” Gregoire said. “Our commitment must be well planned and it will be. I also want to say that the help of volunteers will be critical.”

Gregoire encouraged the public to stay away from debris believed to be hazardous or contain oil and report it to 800-OILS-911.

  • NOAA is actively collecting information about tsunami debris and asks the public to report debris sightings to

The Washington Department of Ecology has been distributing information about where to call when citizens encounter debris. For more information, go to

tsunamiboat1ILWACO, Wash. — State and federal officials are inspecting a 20-foot fishing boat that washed ashore at Washington’s Cape Disappointment State Park that appears to have originated in Japan, the Washington state Department of Ecology confirmed Friday.

Reports began to come in at around 3 p.m. of a boat with Japanese writing on it washing ashore in three pieces on the park beach in Washington’s Pacific County.

Washington’s departments of Ecology, Health, Fish and Wildlife, Military Emergency Management Division and Washington Parks and Recreation Commission, as well as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, are inspecting the boat to determine if it was swept into the Pacific Ocean during the March 11, 2011, tsunami in Japan, Ecology said in a news release.

The Parks and Recreation Commission is asking the public to stay away from the boat so the Fish and Wildlife Department can clean it and remove potentially invasive plant and animal species.

NOAA is working with the Japanese consulate in Seattle to determine if the boat came from Japan and to find its owner, the statement said.

A refrigerator that may be from Japan was found washed up on a beach near Moclips, Wash., on Wednesday. And a huge Japanese fishing dock washed ashore on the Oregon coast last week.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said the boat could be the first major piece of tsunami debris found on a Washington state beach, though smaller debris has been found.

“The discovery of this potential tsunami debris on Washington shores is yet another reminder that the federal government needs a comprehensive plan in place to protect our coastal communities,” Cantwell said in a statement. “Federal agencies need to ensure that communities like Ilwaco get the tools they need to prepare for and clean up tsunami debris and potential disruptions from invasive species.

“The debris from the tragic tsunami in Japan is a national problem,” she said. “West Coast states and communities cannot and should not carry the burden and cost of dealing with tsunami debris on our own.”

According to recent reports, Cantwell said, the 65-foot-long dock that washed up on a beach in central Oregon carried 2 tons of sea life, including some harmful invasive species.

A preliminary examination of the fishing boat revealed no oil or hazardous materials associated with the boat. Anyone encountering potentially hazardous materials is asked to call 1-800-oils-911.

Local News

Concern grows about Japanese tsunami debris

tsunamiyuckSEATTLE — Concern is growing about potentially dangerous Japanese tsunami debris washing up on the Washington coast.

The massive earthquake in March 2011 that rocked Japan triggered a massive tsunami. More than 28,000 people were killed and entire towns wiped out.

Now some debris from that natural disaster is showing up in Alaska, Oregon and Washington and it’s expected to get worse.

Chances are good that debris will make it into the Puget Sound, but not too much — for every 1,000 pieces that make it to the coast, one piece will make it into the Sound, according to experts.

The big problem will be on the coast, and the amount expected to hit the coast and the problems it could cause is unimaginable.

First, there was that 160-foot Japanese fishing vessel – a ghost ship that had to be sunk before it reached land or came in contact with any other ship. Then came the Japanese fishing dock in Oregon.  It’s 7 feet tall, 19 feet wide and 66 feet long. And then there’s the smaller items.

“You’ve seen all the Styrofoam that’s been washing up; potentially it will be a thousand times more than that, so beaches might be several feet thick for many miles,” oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer said.

He added that the bulk of the more than 1.5 million tons of tsunami debris is still months away and his biggest concern is Styrofoam.

“The birds like to eat it. It gets ground up into food and goes right into the food chain so if we don’t get the Styrofoam off the beach real fast, it gets in the marine food web,” Ebbesmeyer said.

“The worst case scenario is that the beaches become littered with woody debris, plastic debris, large debris, metallic debris,” University of Washington oceanographer Giora Proskurowski said, adding that another big concern is invasive species.

They were found on the fishing dock in Oregon and in the container that washed ashore in Alaska with a Harley Davidson motorcycle inside.

The invasive species could change our ocean waters forever.

“There’s a natural balance already established, and you introduce one species that can run rampant over not just one species but over a whole multitude of species and it distorts the natural balance that’s been established via geography and natural forces,” Proskurowski said.

The good news, according to Proskurowski, is that most of the debris will never make it ashore. Instead it will get caught up in the pacific subtropical gyre, a large system of rotating ocean currents.

“Some of it will get processed, especially the woody debris but a lot of the more persistent products will remain in the sub-tropical gyre for years and years to come and it’s going to accumulate along with all the other plastic debris that’s already located there,”  Proskurowski said.

Ebbesmeyer said states that will be heavily impacted by the debris are not ready to handle the cleanup. He expects the bulk of what’s coming ashore to get here within the next three years; then it could continue to come ashore in lesser amounts for the next 60 years.

Gov. Christine Gregoire plans to hold a news conference Monday on how the state will handle the debris.

Local News

Refrigerator found on Washington beach may be tsunami debris

debrisMOCLIPS, Wash. — Charlie Coburn is always searching for something on the beach near Moclips, from sand dollars to bald eagles — but this was a first for him.

“Charlie was running out, he was the first one there, and I said, ‘What is it?’ And he said, ‘It’s a  refrigerator’ and I thought he was kidding,” said Charlie’s mom, Shani Wood.

But this was no joke; it was a refrigerator — beached, empty and rusted. And it appeared to have made a long trip.

Charlie’s father, Jay Coburn, said, “It’s definitely been in the water for some time, you can tell by all the barnacles.”

Jay Coburn believes it’s part of the debris from the Japanese tsunami hitting the shores of Washington state. He’s already found plenty of other evidence.

“There’s lots of Styrofoam,” Jay Coburn said, “lots of bottles, and I found a big chunk of a buoy and that had Japanese writing on it.”

Local residents are concerned about the living things clinging to some of the debris.

“It has mussels we’ve never seen, really weird-looking mussels,” neighbor Mike Patrick said of the beached refrigerator.

“If there’s food or anything on the beach, the seagulls and birds will eat it; they won’t even touch them things,” Patrick said. “They’ve been on there for as long as we’ve seen them and they won’t even touch them.”

Scientists say they may be tiny, but mussels may also be a threat – an invasive species that could take hold in U.S. waters.

A Japanese dock the size of a boxcar recently washed ashore on the Oregon coast; it also carried strange-looking mussels, crab, and algae. State officials bagged them up and buried them to keep them from spreading.

Coburn said it’s one more reason for him and Charlie to keep a close eye on what washes ashore.

County officials are still trying to figure out who is responsible for cleaning the tsunami debris up.

If anyone find anything, they are urged to call the state’s invasive species council.  Click here to go to that site.

Meanwhile, Gov. Christine Gregoire’s office announced the governor and members of her Cabinet will meet in Ocean Shores, Wash., Monday to discuss what state action should be taken regarding the tsunami debris.

She will join Maj. Gen. Timothy Lowenberg, Department of Ecology Director Ted Sturdevant, and Department of Health Secretary Mary Selecky in Ocean Shores to discuss the problem.

Following a press conference, state Department of Health staff will demonstrate how they use Geiger counters to test debris for any radioactive contamination.

tsunamiboatSEATTLE — A 150-foot Japanese fishing vessel that was washed away last year in Japan’s major earthquake and tsunami has traveled across the Pacific Ocean and is about 120 nautical miles off Canada’s Haida Gwaii, formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said Friday.

Japanese local officials confirmed that the boat had originated in Japan, she said.

On its current trajectory and speed, the vessel won’t make landfall for approximately 50 days, Cantwell, a member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said in a statement.

In conversion, 120 nautical miles is about 138 statute miles. The name of the Queen Charlotte Islands was formally changed by Canada in 2010 to Haida Gwaii (“Islands of the People”).

“This 150-foot fishing vessel is the first major West Coast tsunami debris confirmed by Japanese officials. And now, we’ve learned that larger debris could reach our coastlines sooner than expected. With some debris already moving towards the West Coast, we need more data and better science to track and respond to tsunami debris,” Cantwell said.

“This discovery is further proof that the U.S. government needs a comprehensive plan for coordination and response to the tsunami debris. Coastal residents need to know who is in charge of tsunami debris response – and we need clearer answers now,” Cantwell said.

She said that residents “can’t afford to wait until more tsunami debris washes ashore to understand its potential impact on Washington state’s $10.8 billion coastal economy. And we can’t afford to cut the NOAA marine debris program by 25 percent with no plan in place for Japanese tsunami debris.”

After a devastating earthquake and tsunami struck Japan on March 11, 2011, an enormous amount of debris was washed out to sea. One year later, very little is known about the composition or trajectory of the debris, other than it’s moving across the Pacific toward the United States.