First there was the motorcycle that washed up on the shores of Haida Gwaii. Then there was the metal dock that beached itself on Oregon’s shores. More recently, kayakers surveying Washington waters found what they believe to be a Japanese house buckled and torn from more than a year at sea.

By now, most people have heard about the tsunami debris expected to arrive on Vancouver Island’s coast sometime between this fall and 2014. The result of the magnitude 9.0 earthquake that struck Japan in March of 2011, the debris originally included an estimated five million tonnes of wood, metal, plastic, Styrofoam and other material. And while most sank off the coast of Japan, approximately 1.5 million tonnes is still afloat in the Pacific Ocean.

In late September, the province released the latest update to its plan for dealing with tsunami debris. Coordinated by the federal/provincial Tsunami Debris Coordinating Committee, the plan will include a framework for how the government will work with coastal communities to address removal and disposal challenges. The plan will also outline criteria for volunteers and dealing with invasive species.
According to their update, the government is consulting both First Nations and local governments during this phase, which will be completed by the end of October.

“We recognize that communities have concerns about how the possible arrival of tsunami debris may affect them, which is why we have put together a strong, forward-thinking tsunami debris management plan,” said Jonn Braman, regional director for tsunami debris in B.C. “We will be working with these communities to get ahead of the game and prepare for possible challenges such as the recycling, disposal and landfilling [of this debris].”

That’s good news for many small communities, whose governments are usually responsible for dealing with material that washes up above the high-tide mark. If large amounts of debris land in small, remote settlements, the clean-up costs could be enormous.

“My main concerns are how this is going to affect our infrastructure,” said kumu?uxmit (Curtis Dick) of Ahousaht. “Where are we going to bring it all, at what cost, and at whose expense?”

Although Ahousaht has been involved in consultations with the province only indirectly (through the municipality of Ucluelet) the nation’s concerns have not yet been fully addressed. “What I heard from the province was that [things will happen on a] volunteer basis, and maybe they’ll think about compensating nations for the work done. But being First Nations, we don’t have the means to do it at any given time. We have a limit to our budget, but we’ll do what we can.”

As one of his nation’s emergency coordinators, kumu?uxmit has been looking at this issue since the earthquake struck. In addition to considering the cost of cleaning-up the debris, he is also concerned about impacts to local fisheries.

“For First Nations communities that sustain themselves through the oceans, how is it going to affect us over the long term? They say it’s not much garbage coming in, but to us, that is a lot of garbage,” he said.

The area hardest hit by the tsunami included industrial zones and manufacturing plants. Following the earthquake, many industrial chemicals were washed out to sea. In addition to the potential effects on fish, shellfish could also be contaminated by chemicals leaking from intact containers beached or floating offshore.

To date, no one has been able to gauge the exact risk to marine species in British Columbia. The department responsible for impacts to fisheries—Fisheries and Oceans Canada—has indicated that the risks from existing marine debris to marine species, habitats, and ecosystems are poorly understood.
Yet despite the unknowns, governments, nations, and individuals are trying to look ahead to manage debris that may wash up along the West Coast.

In September, Environment Minister Terry Lake visited Ucluelet to meet with local officials and First Nations and visit the beaches. “Tsunami debris presents a unique challenge that will require a collaborative effort,” he said. “No one is going to face this alone.”

Nuu-chah-nulth Nations hope he is right.

Who to Contact if you Find Tsunami Debris:

• Report debris linked to the Japanese tsunami to: DisasterDebris@noaa.gov
• For hazardous material, contact the Provincial Emergency Coordination Centre at 1-800-663-3456.
• Report any derelict ships or cargo to Transport Canada at 604-775-8867 or by e-mail to pacnwp-penpac@tc.gc.ca.

For more information, visit the provincial tsunami debris website at www.tsunamidebrisbc.ca .