British Columbia·In Depth

Japanese tsunami debris B.C. pickup pitched by Gulf of Alaska Keeper

As we approach the fourth anniversary of the Japanese tsunami, a U.S. group wants to use helicopters and a huge barge to remove tonnes of debris still littering B.C. and Alaska.

Proposal involves floating huge barge down B.C. coast removing tonnes of marine debris

As we approach the fourth anniversary of the Japanese tsunami, U.S. group Gulf of Alaska Keeper wants to use helicopters and a huge barge to remove tonnes of material still littering B.C. and Alaska coastlines.

The group plans to float the barge around the north Pacific this summer, picking up huge loads of debris still stranded in coastal Alaska, with other pickup sites proposed for B.C.

"I know up in Haida Gwaii they have a tremendous amount of debris on the outer shoreline," said the group's president and director Chris Pallister.

"It's hard to access and hard to get off, and our barge will have to go past that, and the outside of Vancouver Island is in the same position."
U.S. group Gulf of Alaska Keeper plans to pick up over 1800 bags of tsunami debris and other marine trash stranded on the Alaskan coastline - and hopes to do the same thing in B.C. (Gulf of Alaska Keeper)
Pallister says his group in Alaska and others in B.C. have struggled to safely and economically haul away the huge amounts of debris with their small boats.

"The cost was just driving us out of business, so we just started caching it and piling it up in the hopes we could get a more efficient removal project together... We have 1800 super sacks waiting to haul right now."

Pallister says the plan is to float the barge with the massive load of marine debris to a facility in Seattle that's licensed to handle waste from Canada.

Residents and local governments in coastal B.C. had raised concerns about a surge of debris filling up limited landfill space.

Pallister says the barge is meant to alleviate that problem.

"Everybody that I've been talking to... seems to be pretty positive about it and would like to take advantage of this."

Some money for the $900,000 project will come from a grant from the Japanese government.

In 2012, Japan donated $1 million to B.C. and another $5 million to U.S. West Coast states to help with the cost of cleaning up the debris.

1.5 million tonnes of debris

The March 11, 2011 tsunami was generated after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake hit off the coast of northern Japan. Nearly 19,000 people were killed.

After the huge waves and swells moved inland, they retreated back into the Pacific Ocean, carrying with them the wreckage of buildings, cars and boats.

Later in 2011, the B.C government estimated 1.5 million tonnes of tsunami debris was left floating in the Pacific Ocean.
Linda Leitch and her partner Dann Braman have spent 70 weekends trucking away tsunami debris and other marine junk on the northeast tip of Graham Island in Haida Gwaii. (Linda Leitch)

It's unknown exactly how much of it has arrived on our shores, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says it's received more than 2000 reports of tsunami debris since 2012.

Only 60 of those cases are officially confirmed as being from the disaster region.

But Linda Leitch and her partner Dann Braman, from Haida Gwaii, says the island chain is still being doused with debris this winter, and they think much of it is from the tsunami.

Leitch says the bulk of debris was expected to land in 2012 and 2013.

"Before we were waiting for the tsunami debris, we were wondering whether it was here," Leitch said. "Now there's no question. It's here. This is it."

She says part of the B.C. archipelago is being slammed with Japanese containers, fishing gear, Styrofoam and what she calls "the ground up remains of these poor devastated towns."

Storms wash up even more debris

Leitch and Braman have been contracted to clean 70 kilometres of remote beaches on Graham Island, the largest island in Haida Gwaii.

That's the same area where beachcomber Peter Mark made international headlines in 2012, when he found a shipping container with a rusty Harley Davidson inside — the first piece of confirmed tsunami debris to land in Canada.

Linda Leitch says after every storm, an average of three truckloads of debris washes up on the beaches of Naikoon Provincial Park and Rose Spit Ecological Reserve. (Linda Leitch)

The couple says over the past two years, they've spent 70 weekends on the beaches of Naikoon Provincial Park in their four-by-four, removing debris.

Leitch says after every storm, another three truckloads of debris still washes up.

"There is tons of garbage hitting our beach every day. This problem is real. It's not going away. It's not old news. It is occurring news."

Leitch and Braman have been operating on a small grant, but that funding has now run out.

Leitch says not all of the debris they're now removing is from Japan, but the B.C. and Canadian governments are turning a blind eye to the issue of marine debris.

"The problem is getting worse, we need to do something," Leitch said. "This plastic is getting embedded into our shore and becoming part of the landscape."

Leitch and Braman are now reaching out to others for help with their cleanup through a GoFundMe page — at the time of writing they had raised about $1,305 of their $20,000 goal.

Province: debris less than expected

In a statement on Monday, the B.C. Ministry of Environment said only a small amount of confirmed tsunami debris has ended up on B.C. beaches.

"The reality is marine debris regularly washes up on B.C.'s shores and it is almost impossible to differentiate between tsunami debris and general marine debris, therefore we cannot estimate how much debris is a result of the tsunami."

The ministry has already given out $663,738 of the million-dollar tsunami debris grant from Japan. The remainder will be put towards other cleanup efforts by the end of the next fiscal year.


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