A surge of debris washing up on the shores of B.C.’s Haida Gwaii and believed to be from the 2011 Japanese tsunami is prompting calls to launch possibly the biggest beach cleanup Canada has ever seen.

Countless pieces of Styrofoam now dot beaches on the north shores of Haida Gwaii, formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands, about 800 kilometres northwest of Vancouver.

"It’s a lot now, and it’s just the beginning," said Haida fisherman Bruce Stewart  Burton. "I'm kind of afraid what we're going to see in the near future."

There’s no proof much of the suddenly appearing and unmarked debris was washed away from Japan in the March 2011 tsunami, but among the flotsam there are also many bottles with Japanese writing.

The beaches are also in the same general area where a Harley Davidson from Japan washed ashore in April. One part of the beach is so cluttered with new junk that it looks like a landfill, with rusty propane tanks, barrels and plastic gasoline cans, some with fuel still in them.

Massive debris en route

The concerns of locals are shared by Vancouver Aquarium CEO John Nightingale, who recently returned from Haida Gwaii, where he had surveyed a debris field from a boat off the coast.

"Never before had we been out there and just stand on the deck of the boat and see identifiable floating pieces of plastic as far as the eye can see," Nightingale said. 

Nightingale said it’s potentially disastrous for the ecosystem.

"We could see beaches physically changed, their ecology, how animals interact with them."

Haida administrators like John Disney are concerned that light debris that's  been blown by the wind is only a hint of the mess ocean currents could bring in the coming months, perhaps as early as October.  

"What we didn't realize ... until we started monitoring satellite imagery, is how big the debris field is that is coming. That's the heavy stuff that's affected by ocean currents, and that's just massive," Disney said.   

Disney said it just won’t be acceptable to leave it on B.C.’s beaches.

"We need to get it off there and come up with a plan. That's what we need here — a plan that kicks in at different stages."

 

With files from the CBC's Chris Brown