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It's a Small, Small World

What do a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, a floating dock and a house have in common? Besides the fact that they all washed ashore recently at various points along the west coast, they all originated in Japan and were washed out to sea in March of 2011 in the terrible tsunami that struck that country.

After floating for 5,000 miles these items washed ashore in Oregon, British Columbia and Washington State. 
It’s a small world indeed. Scientists estimate that 5 million tons of debris floated away from the Japanese coast during this tragic event. Although 70 percent of it is believed to have sunk near the coast of Japan, the other 30 percent has dispersed or floated away into the Pacific Ocean. 
 
When people hear of this debris washing ashore in our country, thoughts usually jump to the obvious: is there any radioactivity left on this stuff given the meltdowns of the nuclear reactors in Japan? Is this stuff dangerous from that perspective?
 
Tests on the debris that has already washed ashore have revealed no radioactivity and NOAA advises that the chances are small that any debris holds harmful levels of radioactivity from the Fukushima nuclear emergency that followed the tsunami.
 
Other common concerns center on the “pollution” aspect of this event: even 30 percent of 5 million tons means that 1.5 million tons of debris is floating around in the Pacific Ocean which could make its way to our shores in the near future. Experts say the items could make landfall anywhere from Alaska down to California and even out in Hawaii. The track of this debris is controlled by currents, wind and storms and nobody can accurately predict exactly where it will all end up. All this from an event that occurred 5,000 miles away on the other side of the planet.
 
But here’s another possible environmental calamity that many people don’t immediately consider: Invasive species. It’s not just the debris that is making its way across the ocean that poses a threat to the environment, it’s what is coming with it!
 
A floating dock that arrived on the shore near Newport, Oregon had attached to it millions of organisms, including crabs, algae and starfish, that are native to Japan. These non-native species could wreak havoc in our local marine eco-systems. Non-native species, if they are able to acclimate to local conditions, usually enjoy an advantage in that no predator currently exists here to control their population. Think of a new species that is allowed to propagate and reproduce unchecked n the environment, crowding out and eventually killing off the local species. 
 
In our hyper-connected world, the means of transport for untold species of organisms are getting easier and easier. Species are being re-located and local species displaced at alarming rates. The environment is becoming unbalanced and disrupted. And massive amounts of debris, dumped into the oceans, are but one way in which marine animals are finding their way into new ecosystems.
 
It’s a small world indeed. The debris from the tsunami in Japan serves as a reminder of how our world continues to shrink. We all have a responsibility to be mindful of this, to take care in how we utilize our resources and how we transport our goods. Getting our HOWs right in these areas isn’t just about conserving our resources or about curbing our pollution…it’s about respecting the biodiversity of our planet and being mindful of the very real phenomenon of invasive species.

Topics: Sustainability