Soccer balls…motorcycles…reminders of the massive tsunami in Japan a year ago are now appearing along Alaska’s coastlines.
“It’s safe to say that tsunami debris is here,” said Merrick Burden, director of the Juneau-based Marine Conservation Alliance Foundation.
Since January the MCA has been tracking where and the kinds of debris that is coming ashore, and whether it is radioactive (none so far), at Kodiak, Yakutat, Sitka and Craig where the wreckage was first likely to hit.
“What we’re finding are wind driven objects like buoys, Styrofoam, and large containers, some of which contain materials that are potentially toxic,” Burden said. “We’re finding drums full of things that we don’t know what they are yet. So we’re looking at a potential large scale environmental problem, and what we’re dealing with now is just the start of it.”
Debris has been found in every area they’ve looked, Burden said, and mysterious sludge is washing up on some beaches, apparently from opened containers. Just days ago, an enormous amount of floating debris was spotted off the southern reaches of Prince William Sound, making national headlines. But the worst is yet to come.
“Next year is when we expect the larger debris that is driven by currents rather than wind,” he said. “That should be comprised of entirely different types of materials, and it might even follow a different trajectory through the water and end up in different locations.
“Part of the problem is that we don’t know what we’re dealing with, and it looks bad. It’s obviously tragic, and it looks like it’s a pretty major environmental hazard as well.”
Some references are being made to the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, saying the impacts of tsunami debris could be worse and more widespread.
“We are dealing with something that will be scattered across the majority of the Alaska coastline as it sweeps across Southeast, through the Gulf, out to the Aleutians and spits up into the Bering Sea. And it looks like some of these containers and canisters contain toxic materials that may be hazardous to human health. There is sludge washing up on some of these beaches, and we can’t know what it’s comprised of, but it’s near a container that was recently opened.”
Alaskan mariners, fishermen, pilots and beachcombers can play an important role in tracking the oncoming tsunami debris.
“Let us know about the debris you’re finding – where it is, what it is comprised of, take a photo, and send to us,” Burden said. “We are also sharing the information with NOAA and we’re all just trying to get a better understanding of what’s out there and what’s coming.”
Marine trades move Alaska
With 82 percent of Alaska’s communities unreachable by roads, water is the way to go. Businesses that serve the marine industry, including ports and harbors, are a lifeline for coastal communities. State economic specialists want to highlight the importance of the marine trade sector across Alaska, and the jobs it provides, which are often overlooked.
“Research shows that about 80 percent of new jobs are created by existing businesses in a community, rather than businesses attracted to a community. Our goal is to try and retain and expand existing businesses, and doing so is a surer economic development bet than recruiting new ones from other places,” said specialist Kevin O’Sullivan at the Division of Economic Development.
To identify the challenges facing businesses, as well as future opportunities, DED needs to get input from Alaskans via an online Business Retention and Expansion questionnaire on how local marine businesses are faring.
“Ship building and repair businesses, seafood processors, all modes of transportation, marine vendors, such as welders or automotive folks, marine construction, anyone dealing with logistics or fuel, ports and harbors and the infrastructure associated with that, and the marine professional services we forget about – engineers, banks, insurance companies, accountants,” O’Sullivan said.
A survey targeting fishermen will follow in the fall, he added, along with follow ups over the years to track any trends.
“It is valuable to look at results over time because the information will show not only how well businesses are doing, but where the businesses are shifting and relocating to, and why that might be occurring, and the reasons for that might be important,” he said. “We hope through efforts like this it will become clear how vital and valuable this overlooked and very much under promoted economic sector is to the state’s economy and to the people who work in these places.”
Comments wanted on observer program
The public has until June 18 to comment on the proposed rule for the restructured observer program set to start up January 2013. The new program will change how observers are placed on fishing boats, paid for, and for the first time, they will be aboard the halibut longline fleet and on vessels less than 60 feet.
People affected by the new rules can really help shape the new program, said Martin Loefflad, director of the Fisheries Monitoring and Analysis Division of the North Pacific Fishery Observer Program at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle.
“It is really helpful when people read the rule very carefully and think of how it is going to impact them, rather than saying ‘I like it or don’t like it’,” Loefflad said. “Give us some concrete suggestions on how we can improve the language to make it work better. That really helps us because the final rule will be adjusted based on public comments. It’s the people who are out there who will be impacted that can help us create it to work at the start.”
NOAA Fisheries also is seeking a contractor to oversee observer training and deployment to shore side debriefings.
Here comes Copper River!
Southeast trollers have been providing Alaska king salmon all year, and small fisheries opened May 1 on the Stikine and Taku Rivers in Southeast, but it’s the Copper River salmon opener that officially signals the start of Alaska’s salmon season. The famous fishery opens May 17 and the River is expected to produce another robust run of reds and kings.
“Last year was a big surprise with over two million reds and we expect another good year. Kings are on par with last year, with a somewhat higher forecast. Over 20,000 were caught caught last season,” said Beth Poole, director of the Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association.
“Cordova is filling up with fishermen who’ve come to get their boats ready,” Poole said of the fleet of 540 salmon permit holders. “We had so much snow and winter is still lingering, but we’re looking forward to the first opener and a great season.”