Debris from Japan Tsunami Threatens to Hit Northwest Hawaiian Islands

FrigatebirdPhoto: AngrySun
The northwest Hawaiian Islands comprise a rich and fragile ecosystem, home to species including the Great Frigratebird.

Just over a year ago, the Tohoku Earthquake struck eastern Japan with an incredible magnitude of 9.0 on the Richter scale. The resulting tsunami that devastated Japan also traveled across the Pacific Ocean and impacted the northwest Hawaiian Islands – a largely uninhabited series of islands and atolls with fragile ecosystems and a treasure trove of biodiversity.

Over 110,000 rare Laysan and black-footed albatross chicks perished in the tsunami, and over 2,000 adults were killed. Now, the first round of tsunami debris may shortly be making landfall in the same region.

According to the non-profit organization Ocean Conservancy, the tsunami debris “could damage reefs, introduce invasive species and impact the Laysan and black-footed albatross, Hawaiian monk seal, green sea turtle, and other threatened and endangered species.” Debris could also affect the migratory routes of a variety of other species ranging from seabirds to bluefin tuna to whales.

Laysan AlbatrossPhoto: Patte David – US Fish and Wildlife Service
Albatross colonies on Midway Atoll were devastated during the tsunami. A year later, the well-being of the albatross is also an indicator of the severity of the incoming tsunami debris.

However, the timing and potential impact of the tsunami debris on the northwest Hawaiian Islands is complex. Last September, a Russian ship spotted an abandoned 20-foot vessel from the Fukushima tsunami zone adrift near northwest Hawaiian waters near Midway Atoll. A larger abandoned Japanese fishing boat has recently been discovered near British Columbia. But overall, the debris from the tsunami has sunk, or dispersed across the northern Pacific Ocean – making the task of assessing the ultimate impacts challenging.

In fact, a lack of strong winds from the north this winter has likely kept the tsunami debris away from northwest Hawaii, for now. Ironically, a species that was severely impacted by the tsunami itself, the Laysan Albatross, might be the ultimate “canary in the coal mine” for the eventual impact of the debris if and when weather patterns shift. As adult albatross graze the waters of the northwest Hawaiian Islands to feed their chicks, they may unintentionally ingest plastic debris. If the chicks ingest too much plastic during their feedings, it can ultimately be fatal.

In a recent interview with Discovery News, an NOAA scientist said: “The albatrosses could be eating debris from the Japanese tsunami, but we have no evidence either way, yet. Only time will tell.”

Humpback WhalePhoto: NOAA National Ocean Service
The humpback whale, a symbol of the biodiversity throughout the Hawaiian Island chain, could find tsunami debris in its migratory route in the near future.

In Hawaii, government-led discussions are underway to discuss how to deal with the potential impact of the tsunami debris on the ecosystem of the northwest islands and beyond. Questions including how the debris will be handled and checked for radiation and Japan’s role in a potential clean-up are being debated. In the meantime, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has a comprehensive tsunami debris monitoring program underway throughout the North Pacific Ocean in which the public can participate. Debris sightings can be sent via e-mail to [email protected] Non-profits such as Ocean Conservancy are also deeply engaged in this emerging issue.

Source: Honolulu Civil Beat, MSNBC, Ocean Conservancy, Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, Our Amazing Planet, World News Australia, Discovery News, Hawaii News Now, NOAA