PORT ANGELES, Wash. - For more than a decade the Heilman family has combed some of the most remote beaches on Washington's coast. They brought a lot of stuff home: fishing floats, small buoys, anything that doesn't sink.
Son Connor said for years they found black fishing floats about a foot in diameter with Japanese writing.
"We'd find them like five or ten at a time," said Connor. "Now we're finding a lot more of them, like 20 and 30, when we go out."
The Heilmans were just three of the 48 people who attended a day of briefings on what to expect from tsunami debris. Those classes were led by oceanographer Curt Ebbesmeyer, who's built a long career calculating where stuff that ends up in the ocean goes.
He's tracked lost cargo off freighters, tons of sporting goods which washed up on Vancouver Island, toys like plastic ducks. Some cargoes even made it under the polar ice to pop up in the North Atlantic.
Now he's tracking what could well be the mother lode of ocean debris. The Japanese government officially estimates 5 million tons of debris went into the ocean in the March 2011 tsunami which hit northeastern Japan. Even though the government estimates most of it sank, there could be 1.5 million tons still afloat.
We've already seen confirmed tsunami debris hitting the Washington coast, the most recent piece was a 30-foot long buoy used by fisherman to attract fish. That buoy was found just off shore about half way up the Long Beach Peninsula.
At least six other pieces of confirmed debris were also found, from soccer and basketballs complete with the names of schools and students printed on the side, to that 164-foot long abandoned squid ship which suddenly showed up 150 miles off the B.C. coast in early March.
While most of the confirmed debris showed up in Canada and Alaska, tons of easily blown styrofoam floats used in Japanese oyster farming have piled up on the more northerly beaches on Washington's outer coast. While it's impossible to confirm that the foam comes from the tsunami, experts like Ebbesmeyer are "99.9% sure" they're here because of the tsunami.
"What you're looking at is a train wreck. You've had the first boxcar come in, but the train is going to pile up on your shores going out 2,000 miles," said Ebbesmeyer.
For three days now Ebbesmeyer has had the undivided attention of packed houses in Port Angeles and Sequim. The sessions are put on by the Coastal Watershed Institute of Port Angeles and the Surfrider Foundation.
The organizations are trying to raise awareness with the public to the environmental and even direct personal threat tsunami debris poses. Cans of rat poison and insecticides are expected among the debris. For years, beachcombers incluing the Heilmans say they've seen cans of poisons used to control vermin on ships and then tossed over the side only to end up on beaches.
People who find hazardous materials like poisons and cans of fuel are told to leave those objects alone and call authorities. The Washington Department of Ecology will deal with those objects.
The Department of Health is monitoring for any traces of radiation, as the tsunami also triggered the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Because the meltdown came a few days after the tsunami hit, health officials believe there is only a remote possibility anything arriving here could be radioactive. They are also testing fish inccluding salmon. So far those tests are negative.
During the symposium Monday, Ebbersmeyer said West Coast beachcombers may also find floating athletic shoes with human bones as more debris washes ashore. He told the audience he's expected 100 sneakers with bones in them.
The Penninsula Daily news reports Ebbesmeyer saying “The good news in this case is that the Japanese must have a very large DNA database because there's still 3,000 people missing,” he said. “If you find a sneaker, stop in your tracks. Take a stick, turn it over, and see if there's remains in it. If there are, call 9-1-1 and wait for the police.”
“That may be the only remains that a Japanese family is ever going to have of their people that were lost."