SITKA — A number of Japanese- manufactured buoys turned up on Sitka’s beaches last weekend, sparking speculation that they might have been washed to sea by the tsunami in Japan one year ago.
But experts tracking beach debris in Alaska say it’s too early to say whether they originated with the tsunami, or are sea-bound flotsam of the kind that regularly ends up on Alaskan beaches.
“It’s impossible to tell,” said Dave Gaudet, the marine debris program coordinator for the Marine Conservation Alliance Foundation.
The organization received a grant to conduct marine cleanup in Alaska, and has contractors in Sitka, Craig, Yakutat and Kodiak. After the March 11, 2011, tsunami, the organization established a monitoring program to locate and identify Japanese tsunami debris on Alaska’s shores.
“The monitoring program is designed to examine beaches in a systematic manner and tabulate the number of objects arriving on Alaska’s beaches,” Gaudet said in a news release.
Among the objects found recently near Sitka were a Japanese buoy found by Tim Shobe this weekend on Apple Island, another buoy found by Thor Christianson near Guertin Island, and a number of floats retrieved from area waters by fisherman John Bahrt. Word was then passed along to MCAF contractors at the Sitka Sound Science Center.
“There’s always a lot of debris here,” said Tory O’Connell, a biologist at the Sitka Sound Science Center who has been monitoring the area’s beaches since 2008. “We see a lot of gas cans, a lot of buoys. It will be a bit of a challenge to determine what is tsunami-related and what isn’t.”
Gaudet said one item that has been linked to the tsunami was a skiff found on the high seas, that was registered to the prefecture where the tsunami was centered.
He said contractors -- in addition to their regular cleanup duties -- are focused on looking for things that are out of the ordinary for what’s commonly found on the beach, and for items that are directly traceable to Japan and the tsunami.
“The reason we’re doing the monitoring program is if there would be debris from the tsunami, all of a sudden a lot would show up at once,” Gaudet said. “Or there is a change in the composition of debris. We’re using experienced contractors who know their beaches, they’ve been going there for years.”
No one is ruling out the possibility that the recent finds came from the tsunami, since many boats carrying similar buoys were destroyed in the disaster. Gaudet said it is feasible for such objects to reach Alaska’s coast within one year. This Sunday will mark the one-year anniversary of the disaster. He said it is possible that wintertime winds carried the buoys on the ocean surface.
Debris carried by currents travels at slower speeds, Gaudet added. O’Connell said items arriving now would be a little ahead of schedule, according to prediction models.
Time will give a better indication of whether the buoys are ordinary beach debris or coming from the tsunami, Gaudet said.
“What we’re looking for is all of a sudden a lot of these black buoys show up at once,” he said.
The professional beachcombers are equipped with Geiger counters out of concern that the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown might have contaminated objects washed out to sea. But so far the beach debris has registered zero for radiation.
“That’s good to know,” Gaudet said.
Gaudet said the time lapse between the tsunami and the nuclear plant disaster made nuclear contamination unlikely.
He said the organization will continue keeping close contact with the contractors, who will “characterize the debris on the beaches.”
O’Connell said besides being alert to the possibility of radioactivity, contractors also need to be respectful about the things that are picked up, since they may be connected to those who experienced the tragedy.
“There are things that might be meaningful, or personal effects,” O’Connell said.
SSSC director Lisa Busch encouraged everyone finding buoys or debris that might be from the tsunami to send photos and information to the Sitka Sound Science Center at voconnell(at)sitkasoundsciencecenter.org
Information from: Daily Sitka Sentinel, http://www.sitkasentinel.com/