Debris from the March 2011 Japanese tsunami is washing up on Pacific Northwest beaches.

Coming right behind could be thousands of tourists.

Initial computer models by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had estimated that the first wave of tsunami debris would reach the West Coast in the winter of 2012-13.

But the well-publicized June 5 landfall of a 66-foot dock at Agate Beach, and the subsequent arrival of large objects on regional beaches in Oregon and Washington, have piqued the public’s interest.

“Lots of people are going to the beach,” reported Pacific City Chamber of Commerce board member Doug Olson. “It’s like when a whale washes up.”

Between June 5 and June 17, park rangers counted 20,000 cars in the main parking lot at Agate Beach in Lincoln County, said Chris Havel, associate director of the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. “That’s about five times normal for that park,” he said.

When a 20-foot Japanese fishing boat washed ashore at Cape Disappointment, Wash., 10 days later, it drew a small crowd. “We had a lot of people come out Friday evening or Saturday morning,” said Steve Brand, a field operations manager for Washington State Parks.

“As more interesting things wash ashore, I think we’ll see an increase in visitation and tourism,” Brand said.

As of June 19, NOAA had nine items on North American and Hawaiian beaches confirmed to be Japanese tsunami debris, said spokesperson Keeley Belva.

The Japanese government estimates the tsunami carried 5 million tons of debris into the Pacific Ocean. Much of it quickly sank, but about 1.5 million tons is believed to be floating in the North Pacific.

NOAA models suggest the debris is scattered over an area three times the size of the lower 48 states, Belva said.

And the debris is expected to continue washing ashore on North American beaches for the next several years.

Lincoln City Manager David Hawker said the appearance of mystery objects on the beach could be a tourist draw. “It’s going to capture the inherent desire of many people to beachcomb,” he said.

At the same time, Hawker said, the beachcombing “can be a positive visitor experience but also brings along issues depending on what they find.”

He said found items could run the gamut from trash to valuables to personal items that city officials would want to see returned to their owners in Japan if possible. “There will be items with great sensitivity that have to be very carefully handled,” he said.

‘Voluntourism’

Lincoln City Visitor & Convention Bureau executive director Sandy Pfaff is exploring the idea of a program to reunite survivors with lost belongings.

“Glass floats that come across from Japan sometimes hang out in the ocean for 30 years without breaking before washing up on our beach,” she said. “That would suggest that maybe other things could, too.”

Pfaff said she could see local residents and visitors teaming up to retrieve identifiable items from the community’s beaches and posting details of their finds online. If the owners had survived the tsunami and could identify their belongings, Pfaff said, beachcombers could mail the items to Japan.

If Oregon’s coast sees a large amount of the debris, she said, such a program could act as a draw for visitors who want a vacation with a purpose – a growing trend that has been dubbed “voluntourism.”

Pfaff said any such program would need to be coordinated with the State of Oregon, which has jurisdiction over the beach and is particularly concerned with hazardous items that could wash up.

Civic duty

For many local residents, the arrival of tsunami debris on our beaches has spurred a sense of responsibility.

Individuals and organizations have stepped forward to scrape and burn invasive species off of larger found objects, and to pick up and haul away the billions of smaller bits of plastic and Styrofoam that are littering the beaches.

“I see the positive as an increase in awareness and an interest in the public to take care of our beach,” said Washington parks official Brand. “We are seeing an increase in the number of people volunteering to help with cleanup.”

Oregon parks official Havel said garbage haulers “are playing an important role helping us store the debris until we figure out how to pay for it.”

He said marine debris has been a problem for Oregon’s beaches for decades, but over time has become virtually invisible to coastal visitors. “Now, people are looking for it and being more aware of it,” he said.

“If this emboldens a new generation to care for the beach, ‘Hooray!’”

Brand said the tsunami debris can spawn conversations – particularly with younger visitors – about major developments such as disaster preparedness, invasive species, protecting marine environments, profiteering, radiation, ocean currents and marine life.

And it can be yet another reason to take a trip to the beach this weekend.

“If curiosity about what you might find brings you to the beach, in spite of the tragedy, it’s a wonderful thing,” Havel said. “Curiosity is going to help people rediscover their birthright.”

Walking a fine line

Despite the potential boost in tourism that could accompany the tsunami debris, a number of local officials cautioned against actively marketing the tragedy to draw visitors.

“We, as a state, are very sympathetic of the cause,” said Judiaann Woo, director of global communications for Travel Oregon. “It is a tragedy that the tsunami happened. We aren’t looking to capitalize or anything.”

Lorna Davis, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce in Newport, said, “If anything is kept here or placed here, we don’t feel it would be proper to capitalize on it. We want to make sure it properly symbolizes the tragedy of the tsunami and memorializes the victims.”

In fact, the tsunami debris has costs that go beyond cleaning up the trash and combating

the invasive species and toxic chemicals detrimental to the marine environment.

Agate Beach is one of Oregon’s numerous

state parks that don’t require a day-use or parking fee. The costs of maintaining the park are offset by money raised through the Oregon lottery and RV registrations. But with five times more people flushing toilets and tossing trash, operational expenses at the park have increased, Havel said.

Additionally, a significant influx of visitors “could overwhelm the beaches,” said Linda Roy, executive director of the Lincoln City Chamber of Commerce.

“If the states of Oregon or Washington decide [the beach is] unsafe or so impacted by the amount of people, they could decide to rope it off.” For those local economies that rely on drawing tourists to the beaches, that could be devastating.

In addition, visitors might worry about being exposed to radiation from the Fukishima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident that followed the March 11, 2011, earthquake.

That said, none of the large debris on Oregon and Washington beaches has yet been reported to have above-normal levels of radiation.

“The consensus among experts is that it is extremely unlikely any tsunami-generated marine debris will hold harmful levels of radiation from the Fukishima nuclear emergency,” said NOAA’s Belva.

“All the beaches are safe,” added Woo. “Nothing is radioactive.”

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