VANCOUVER — It has been five years since a magnitude-9.0 earthquake rattled northeastern Japan, claiming at least 15,000 lives and leaving more than half a million people homeless.
On March 11, 2011, one the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded hit Japan and triggered a powerful tsunami — sending waves reaching up to 40 meters high into the coastline, destroying entire towns and triggering one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters.
Countless homes, shops, cars and boats were swept into the sea, forming a massive swarm of debris.
Five years later, evidence of that unprecedented destruction is still washing up on beaches and shores across the Pacific Rim, including in British Columbia.
An estimated 1.5 million tonnes of tsunami debris ended up in the Pacific Ocean in the aftermath of the catastrophe.
B.C. Ministry of Environment spokesperson says over 200 tonnes of debris had been collected on the province’s shorelines, as of March 2015.
Some of the most common finds are polystyrene; hard plastics (including plastic bottles); fishing nets and fishing floats; processed lumber and wooden structures such as boats and pallets.
B.C. government says the volume of debris has been lower than anticipated and, to date, there have only been a minimal amount of confirmed pieces of tsunami debris washed up on on B.C. shores.
Keeley Belva, a public affairs officer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), says marine debris is an ongoing problem, especially around the Pacific, and natural disasters can make the problem worse.
“That’s part of why it’s very difficult to tell where debris comes from without unique identifying information,” says Belva. “If a piece of debris is suspected to be from the tsunami, NOAA works with the Japanese government to identify these items if possible.”
Gallery: Japan tsunami debris
So far, NOAA has been able to confirm 64 marine debris items that have washed ashore as a result of the Japanese tsunami; four were found in B.C.
In April 2012, a Harley-Davidson motorcycle was found on Graham Island — some 6,400 kilometers from Japan. The rusted bike was found in a large container where its owner, Ikuo Yokoyama, had kept it.
Yokoyama, who survived the quake, was located through a licence plate number. He lost his home and three family members in the disaster.
The motorcycle was among the first items lost in the tsunami to reach the west coast of North America. It is now on display at the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, USA.
In August of the same year, a small vessel was found on Spring Island.
A large steel tank was found in January 2013 on the east side of Haida Gwaii, Then, in August 2013, a small boat was found on Vancouver Island.
All of the items were traced back to the March 11, 2011 earthquake.
Karla Robison, Manager of Environmental and Emergency Services with the District of Ucluelet, developed a local marine debris program to manage the suspected tsunami debris that has been arriving on their shores.
Robison says tsunami debris is still showing up five years later, especially on remote beaches.
In 2013, the Japanese government gave a $1-million grant to Canada to support on-the-ground cleanup and disposal efforts for affected coastal communities and First Nations.
The grant money allowed the the department to get to these remote areas, which, Robinson says, are littered with marine debris.
The most recent clean-up, last August, took two weeks to complete. A whopping 20 tonnes of debris were long-lined onto a helicopter and shipped, on a barge, to Seattle for recycling.
She says it’s not uncommon for clean-up workers to come across items like highway markers, tires, boat fragments, fuel canisters, buoys, shoes, cosmetic products, plastic toys and food containers.
“When items like these start to arrive and you see a collection of them, you start to wonder, is this coming from Japan?” says Robison.
One of the more unique tsunami debris items that washed up on their shores was a small wooden Japanese statue.
It was found on Long Beach in 2013 and depicts Shinto God Daikoku holding a magic hammer to represent good fortune and a bag of treasures to symbolize wealth.
It is currently on display at the Vancouver Aquarium.
“It really sheds light into the severity of the disaster and why we should be prepared for something like that on our coastline,” says Robison. “These items should be shared and viewed by all audiences.
“They act as a reminder of that horrific tragedy and allows people to reflect on what happened fives years ago.”
Vancouver Aquarium’s Kate Le Souef, who oversees a nation-wide conservation initiative to remove shoreline litter, says it’s always humbling to find pieces of debris that came from Japan.
“We treat everything with respect,” says Le Souef. “It might be the last thing that’s left from that [Japanese] town, that house or that person.
“If you imagine we suffered something like this here, a huge natural disaster with tens of thousands of people dying, imagine it’s your family member and they passed away and you don’t have anything left of them. And then you get a phone call from the other side of the world and somebody says, ‘I found an item with your mom’s name on it.’ This sort of connection, it shows how close we all are.”
People who see any marine debris that looks like it could be from the Japanese tsunami are asked to report it to DisasterDebris@noaa.gov.
Robison adds her department is working with the Japanese Consulate in Vancouver to possibly return any of the items they find.
“Canada, U.S. and Japan have been working together on this and there have been some strong bonds that have been created across the ocean, through some of these items that have traveled across the Pacific,” she says.