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November 2017    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 32, No. 11   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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New Critters to Spot Along the West Coast

from the November, 2017 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

The massive tsunami that followed a disastrous earthquake in Japan in 2011 swept five million tons of debris into the ocean. Much of it was not biodegradable, and items like glass-fiber boats, mooring buoys and plastic shards now swirl through the Pacific.

A 60-foot-long polystyrene and concrete dock was washed up in Oregon a year later, close to Oregon's State University's Marine Science Center. A biologist discovered that it harbored close to 100 Japanese species. It proved a harbinger of things to come.

Although none of it showed any traces of radiation, volunteers in Hawaii, Alaska and down the Pacific northwest to the mid-California coastline started collecting and bagging this Japanese tsunami marine debris and the passengers it brought rafting across the ocean to U.S. shores.

A report published in Science says they've already counted more than 280 species on 600 pieces of debris. Most were invertebrates such as seastars, nudibranchs, barnacles, bryozoan and isopods, even two species of fish.

Ocean dispersal has been going on since the dawn of time, but plastic has largely replaced wood, and since that doesn't sink like wood does when it becomes waterlogged, it's a more efficient method of transport. Although the scientists do not have immediate plans to study the wreckage from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, they may assess the debris field from those storms when things return to normal.

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