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Japan tsunami debris hitting West Coast

May 27, 2012 |  9:23 am

Ghost ship

More than a year after the catastrophe in Japan, beachcombers up and down the West Coast are awaiting the flotsam that was set on a eastward course by the destructive surge of water.

Fishing floats, soccer balls, fuel tanks and crewless fishing vessels set adrift by the tsunami and pushed thousands of miles across the ocean by currents and winds are already arriving on American shores.

But this is not just driftwood. These fragments of people's lives are floating reminders of a great tragedy: The March 11, 2011, earthquake that unleashed tsunami waves more than 100 feet high killed more than 16,000 people, obliterated coastal communities and swept tons of material out to sea.

So as scientists track the debris, the government prepares for its arrival and expeditions sail to the middle of the ocean to meet it, Jeff Larson will patrol his adopted beach with a 5-gallon bucket and a grab stick, the tsunami on his mind.

"I'll be looking for any signs of foreign material," the volunteer with beach cleanup group Save Our Shores said, "and reporting it to anyone who cares."

From Alaska to Northern California, beachcombers are reporting a growing influx of aerosol cans, fishing floats and plastic fuel cans swept from Japan.

There was a soccer ball with Japanese writing on it discovered in March on a remote Alaskan island and traced to a 16-year-old boy in Japan. In early April, the U.S. Coast Guard had to use explosives to sink a so-called ghost ship — a 164-foot Japanese fishing vessel drifting through the Gulf of Alaska.

A corroded Harley-Davidson motorcycle packed in a container washed up on a Canadian island. The owner, located through the bike's license plate number, had lost three family members in the tsunami, Japanese media reported. Although currents along the California coast may deflect much of the debris toward Hawaii, environmental groups as far south as San Diego are monitoring their shores just in case.

--Tony Barboza

Photo: The unmanned Japanese fishing vessel Ryou-un Maru drifts in the Gulf of Alaska after it broke loose in the tsunami following Japan's 2011 earthquake. It later was sunk by the U.S. Coast Guard. (U.S. Coast Guard / April 4, 2012)