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Great Pacific Garbage Patch a bigger worry than tsunami debris

June 8, 2012 |  6:30 am

Tangled nets and plastic such as these make up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which swirls about 1,000 miles off the coast of California

Debris from the Japanese tsunami is starting to wash ashore on the U.S. West Coast in a big way. 

Beachcombers from Northern California to Alaska are finding fishing floats, soccer balls and ships that have drifted thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean after being dragged to sea by the March 2011 tsunami -- even a Harley-Davidson motorcycle that was traced back to a tsunami survivor.

Authorities this week confirmed the largest arrival yet: A 66-foot dock that floated onto a beach near Newport, Ore. 

Still, marine scientists say a far bigger problem is the untold amount of everyday garbage swirling in a vast, slow-moving vortex known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. That's the popular name for the vast concentration of debris -- most of it confetti-sized flecks of discarded plastic -- circling endlessly about 1,000 miles off the California coast. 

A study released last month found a 100-fold increase in plastic debris in the garbage patch over the past 40 years. 

"I'm more concerned about our constant input of trash than I am about these one-time disasters," lead author Miriam Goldstein, a graduate student at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, told the Los Angeles Times.

"We can’t prevent terrible events like the tsunami, but dumping plastic into the ocean is something we can control and don’t do very well," Goldstein said.

She and other researchers found the upsurge in plastic debris in the middle of the ocean is so dramatic that seafaring insects known as "sea skaters" or "water striders" now use it as a surface to lay eggs, where before they might have used natural pieces of flotsam like feathers, shells and pumice. 

That is not to say debris from the tsunami is considered harmless.

A top National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration official was grilled by Washington lawmakers last month about how hazardous the debris will be and how it will be cleaned up. Though none of the debris is believed to be radioactive since it was dragged to sea before the nuclear disaster, authorities are concerned about invasive organisms hitching rides on the larger objects.

Oregon State University researchers studying the floating dock that washed ashore this week discovered it was carrying a huge amount of barnacles, starfish, urchins, anemones, mussels, snails and algae from Japan.

All that biological material must be scraped off to prevent the spread of non-native and potentially harmful organisms to the United States.


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-- Tony Barboza

Photo: Tangled net and plastics such as these make up much of the enourmous Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Credit: Mario Aguilera / Scripps Institution of Oceanography