WASHINGTON, D.C.— Sen. John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV announced that the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard will hold a hearing next week on “Stemming the Tide: The U.S. Response to Tsunami Generated Marine Debris.”
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Chairman John D. (Jay) RockefellerU.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation
WASHINGTON, D.C.— More than a year has passed since Japan suffered the Tuhoku earthquake and tsunami—one of the worst natural disasters of all time. As the devastating tsunami waves hit Japan, they literally swept thousands of people and their belongings tragically out to sea. The remains of some 25 million pounds of debris entered the ocean. Japan’s losses were far reaching.
The debris from the tsunami is a poignant reminder of our human connections across vast ocean distances. In Canada, a motorcycle that washed up was found to belong to a man who tragically lost three members of his family in the tsunami and is still living in temporary housing. In Alaska, a simple football along the shore was tracked back to its original owner who had the foresight to inscribe the ball. Marine debris associated with the tsunami is reaching U.S. coastlines much earlier than expected, and the debris will continue to affect coastlines and ocean wildlife for decades to come. There is a false notion that the sheer vastness of the ocean can withstand all that we demand of it.
Marine debris is a visual and compelling reminder that we all share responsibility to keep our marine environment clean and free of waste and debris. Even for those living far from a coastline, too often our trash finds its way into the sea. While the dramatic Japanese tsunami has brought about heightened awareness of the impact of marine debris, debris is a fact of everyday life. I am proud to have co-sponsored my friend Senator Daniel Inouye’s legislation, the Trash Free Seas Act of 2011 to reauthorize and strengthen federal programs to reduce and prevent marine debris. I call on the Senate to swiftly act and pass this important piece of legislation.
Further, while NOAA and the Coast Guard have done much with little funding and staff to combat marine debris impacts, this hearing will help us understand how we can do better. I think we must do better, and call upon my colleagues in Congress as well as the Administration to devote further leadership and resources to help respond to this critical and pervasive threat to our oceans and our coastlines.
Senator Mark BegichU.S. Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard
Welcome to an important hearing on the marine debris headed to the West Coast from the Japanese tragedy – and its long-term implications.
We welcome our witnesses:
David M. Kennedy, Assistant Administrator, NOAA’s National Ocean Service;
Rear Admiral Cari Thomas, Director of Response Policy for the United States Coast Guard.
The earthquake and tsunami which struck northern Japan just over a year ago was a human tragedy almost beyond comprehension.
In minutes, it claimed thousands of lives, destroyed complete communities, and touched off the failure of nuclear power plants.
The tsunami also left a legacy which our West Coast states – thousands of miles from the epicenter – are dealing with now and will be for years to come.
Marine debris is nothing new. Flotsam and jetsam has existed for centuries, made worse by the proliferation of plastics which don’t degrade.
To some, like beachcombers who find the occasional “message in a bottle,” this trash is treasure.
To others it’s an eyesore. Many now recognize marine debris as a serious threat to fish, marine mammals and seabirds, through death by entanglement or ingestion.
Last year’s tsunami unleashed debris into the North Pacific on a massive scale. Some five million tons was swept out to sea.
While most quickly sank, NOAA estimates one-and-a-half million tons of tsunami-generated debris is still afloat and being driven by winds and currents toward the west coast of North America.
That’s three billion pounds of mostly plastic trash which will flood into our inter-tidal ecosystems. And the leading edge of this tide is already here.
We’ve read the press reports of the soccer balls found on Middleton Island in my state, and the fishing floats and Styrofoam insulation washing up on Kayak and Montague Islands.
These are mostly the “high windage” items, which float high in the water and are pushed by wind.
Then there’s the ghost squid boat that appeared off the Southeast panhandle, and was promptly sunk by the Coast Guard. Thank you, Admiral.
And even the Harley Davidson which washed up in British Columbia.
From Alaska to Washington, the reports of tsunami debris are coming in, including reports of containers of hazardous material, such as oil and solvents.
That’s not surprising when you consider that entire cities with their gas stations, garages, warehouses, stores, and industrial plants all washed into the sea and are now becoming a threat on our shores.
One of my constituents, Chris Pallister of Gulf of Alaska Keeper, has worked on marine debris issues for most of the last decade.
He described the tsunami debris as “a slow-motion environmental disaster that will far exceed any single pollution event to hit the west coast of North America, including the Exxon Valdez and Santa Barbara oil spills.”
I am submitting Mr. Pallister’s complete letter for the record and one from Merrick Burden with the Juneau-based Marine Conservation Alliance Foundation, which has helped coordinate marine debris efforts in Alaska for years.
Since the event, NOAA’s Marine Debris program has closely monitored this incoming tide of debris. They have modeled drift patterns and tracked reports as they come in.
I know NOAA has further plans to monitor this problem, but my constituents are asking with the debris already here, what’s the plan to deal with it, to clean it up?
And not just this summer but over the years this debris will be arriving on our shores.
That is the purpose of today’s hearing: Given this clear threat, what is our national plan to stem the tide of tsunami debris.
And while I have heard the debris carries no threat of radiation – since it went out to sea before the reactor failures – I want to ask what you know about this possible threat and monitoring done to date because it is a concern to many.
I look forward to your testimony and the questions of other committee members here today.
Witness Panel 1
Mr. David M. KennedyAssistant Administrator, National Ocean ServiceNational Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Rear Admiral Cari B. ThomasDirector of Response PolicyUnited States Coast Guard