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Tsunami debris widespread in Alaska, but not radioactive, says group

Alex DeMarban

Surveyors examining several Alaska beaches for Japanese tsunami debris found fuel canisters and scores of Styrofoam blocks and oyster floats, but not a hint of radiation associated with the trash, according to a new report.

Some fear the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear reactor that followed the massive tsunami in March last year would have contaminated the flotsam with radiation.

That no radiation was found isn't surprising, according to the Marine Conservation Alliance Foundation, which organized the surveys this winter and spring.

The "Pleasant Treasure," before cleaning.

"This is consistent with expectations since the Fukishima meltdown occurred after the water had receded and swept the debris out to sea," the alliance said in its report.

The Juneau-based group sent contractors with hand-held Geiger counters to beaches on Kodiak Island and near the Southeast Alaska communities of Sitka, Yakutat and Craig.

Merrick Burden, executive director, said the debris has spread across the Gulf of Alaska. About 1.5 million tons of it is said to be adrift on the Pacific Ocean, swept along currents that circle between eastern Asia and North America's west coast.

The amount of trash "will only grow from here," he said.

Highlights of the report show that 1,600 pounds of Styrofoam debris was found at eight beaches on Sitka. Styrofoam was also the biggest find at Yakutat where about 147 Styrofoam blocks and 48 oyster floats were counted. Burden said he wasn't sure what the oyster floats were, but believes cages for growing oysters dangled from them.

Surveys were conducted between January and April. The surveyor in Kodiak had the most trouble scouting beaches because of bad weather and snow cover. During seven surveys, he found little debris and believes none of it originated in Japan. But pilots say there's heavy trash on many beaches, the report notes.

To better understand the magnitude of the problem, the group plans to conduct aerial surveys, using a $200,000 grant recently provided by the state, Burden said.

Burden stresses that funding needs to arrive soon to pay for beach cleanups, before fall storms and then winter sets in and seals off the trash until next summer. Waiting too long will allow toxins to spill and marine mammals and fish to ingest disintegrating Styrofoam bits and other waste, he said.

Congress and agencies such as the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are currently considering who's responsible for cleaning up the mess and where the funding will come from, he said.

The "Pleasant Treasure," after cleaning

Trans-Pacific lost and found?

People from Alaska to Oregon have recovered flotsam that drifted across the Pacific Ocean after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami flattened towns along the Japanese coast.

The Craig beach inspector found a soccer ball that made headlines when it was returned to its Japanese owner. Other big discoveries include a 160-ton dock found in Oregon, and a huge ghost ship sunk by the U.S. Coast Guard 180 miles off Southeast Alaska's coast.

The latest big discovery belongs to 41-year-old Mark Gunyah of Metlakatla. He and his wife, Michele, were cruising the beaches near Alaska's southeastern-most community on Saturday when they found a 24-foot fiberglass skiff. It was crusted with sea gunk, but he soon realized it was special after seeing lettering on the bow.

"We said, 'Oh my God. I think this is a tsunami boat.' Where else would you see Japanese writing? I remember someone telling me there's a huge Japanese culture in British Columbia."

But a boat from there wouldn't be so filthy.

Gunyah, a road-crew operator for the Metlakatla Indian Community, scrubbed his find shinier early this week, blasting it for several hours with a pressure washer and bleach. The bright-white exterior looks new in pictures. But "the stink" of the ocean will linger.

The vessel comes with a capstan winch and bow roller that may have once hauled up fishing nets or pots. The black Japanese characters on the bow are pronounced, “Kai Ho Maru,” and are translated as "Pleasant Treasure," according to a Japanese man who works at the fish processing plant in Metlakatla, an island community of 800 and Alaska's only Indian reservation.

It's indeed a treasure, Gunyah said. The boat is too narrow to be used for commercial fishing, but Gunyah might add a 40-horsepower outboard motor for pleasure riding.

On his four-wheeler excursions along the beach, he's found other tsunami castoffs, including a stake of some sort that he's displaying in his chain-link fence, along with plenty of the oyster floats he's found.

He's been beachcombing since he was a kid. "It gets me fired up" to keep looking, he said.

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com