Field Notes
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Field Notes Entry   
PACIFIC SOUTHWEST REGION: Tsunami Debris and Potential for the Introduction of Aquatic Invasive Species
California-Nevada Offices , September 26, 2014
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Plastic bottle with gooseneck barnicles endemic throughout the Northern Pacific.
Plastic bottle with gooseneck barnicles endemic throughout the Northern Pacific. - Photo Credit: USFWS

On March 11, 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Honshu, Japan, creating a devastating tsunami that reached heights of up to 130 feet and inundated 217 square miles. It has been estimated that approximately 5 million tons of debris was washed into the ocean following the tsunami and at least 1.5 million tons of this debris could still be floating. It is anticipated that a portion of this tsunami debris will reach U.S. and Canadian shores over the next several years.

The debris washed into the ocean by the tsunami originated both from land and from coastal marine environments. Terrestrial origin debris includes trees, building materials, plastics, and other lightweight debris, if remaining floating at sea, will be colonized by native, pelagic oceanic species that occur throughout the North Pacific. In contrast, biofouled debris originating from coastal marine environments has the potential to transport non-native and potentially invasive marine life across the ocean. Biofouling refers to the attached and free-living animals and plants found on vessel hulls, docks, buoys, and other marine structures. The biofouling of concern associated with Japanese tsunami marine debris are specifically those marine organisms originating directly from Japanese harbors, ports, and estuaries. It is believed that some of these animals and plants may have the potential to become new invasive species on the North American or Hawaiian coasts.

Since the tsunami in Japan, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Pacific Southwest Region (Region 8) Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) Program participated in a workshop hosted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Portland State University as part of the Tsunami Marine Debris/Biofouling Workgroup. Focus of the workshop was to develop and implement a comprehensive protocol to evaluate and respond to AIS associated with tsunami debris. The Region 8 AIS Program has also been involved with and participated in the NOAA sponsored biweekly Japan tsunami marine debris conference calls and coordinated the Region 8 AIS tsunami debris response activities with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Region 1 and Region 7, NOAA, Department of the Interior, and the Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force. 

The Region 8 AIS Coordinator Ron Smith has also been conducting tsunami debris/biofouling surveys in several locations along the Northern California coast. The purpose of the surveys is to: (1) Establish a baseline for debris of Asian origin then track the arrival and distribution of tsunami debris relative to sensitive coastal habitats; (2) determine the viability of potentially invasive non-native species associated with the debris; (3) evaluate the potential for establishment and invasion of observed non-native species; (4) monitor coastal habitats for possible invasion; and (5) initiate rapid response and control actions in cooperation with state and federal agencies as needed. 

Light weight-wind driven tsunami debris (plastic bottles, foam, building materials, fishing floats, and buoys) began to appear in notable quantities along Northern California coast in early May 2012. Region 8 AIS Program staff and volunteers from the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary Beach Watch Program have been examining debris with biofouling for viable potentially invasive non-native species. Surveys were concluded in July 2014 as biofouling assessments found that most marine organisms were not viable and those that were, are endemic to the Northern California coast.



Contact Info: Ronald Smith, 209-334-2968 x 321, ronald_smith@fws.gov
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