The Human Gyre: cleaning up our shorelines
Born and raised in Perth, Australia, Kate Le Souëf grew up with a deep connection to the ocean. Spending weekends and holidays at the beach with her family she loved the changing moods of the ocean. That fascination led her to ultimately complete a Master of Science in Oceanography at UBC last year. Wanting to have a positive impact on the world’s oceans through direct action she found a position as tsunami debris cleanup coordinator at the Vancouver Aquarium.
Funded by the Province of BC through a gift from the Government of Japan, the program coordinates volunteer-based cleanups of shorelines on the west coast of Vancouver Island affected by debris from the 2011 Japanese tsunami. Since July 2014, the program has funded or coordinated three remote cleanups, which has resulted in a removal of a total of 8.3 tons of debris from incredibly remote and pristine shorelines.
In November 2014 Le Souëf traveled to Japan at the invitation of the Japanese Environmental Action Network (JEAN), a non-profit group in Japan dedicated to reducing marine debris. Along with representatives from Washington CoastSavers, the District of Ucluelet and Hawaii Wildlife Fund, she attended a week-long event to learn about the 2011 tsunami and marine debris in general.
On Thursday, March 5, 2015 Le Souëf will present a talk at Burnaby’s Nikkei Centre. Titled The Human Gyre: marine debris creating human connections across the Pacific, the presentation will include an update of cleanup efforts in BC, as well as a summary of Le Souëf’s trip to Japan. She will include her experience of the human impact of the tsunami, descriptions of the cleanup and rebuilding efforts, and stories of hope from survivors. Le Souëf will also describe the international network that came together as a result of the tsunami to share information about tsunami driftage and emergency preparedness. The collective hope of these groups is that the legacy of the tragic tsunami is a greater awareness of everyday marine debris and increased collaboration across oceans. See page 19 for details.
Kate Le Souëf talked to The Bulletin about her work with tsunami debris cleanup, the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, and the oceans we share.
Interview: Kate Le Souëf
What’s your connection with the ocean?
I’ve always been fascinated by oceanic processes… waves and tides and currents are enormous processes which we can’t control and sometimes can’t even understand. But so much of our lives are determined by the oceans; from weather systems to the water cycle to climate change to the fish that we eat. The fact that humans are influencing this enormous entity in negative ways makes me really sad. I want to repair some of the damage we have all done.
In the aftermath of the 2011 Tohoku tsunami, there was a lot of talk about this great field of debris that was heading for our west coast, and even talk of danger from larger pieces. What is the reality of what happened to the debris?
After the tsunami, lumber, plastic and other materials from houses and buildings were washed out into the ocean. Much of the debris sank in areas close to shore but the floating debris was washed out into the ocean. There were some photos taken in the days after the tsunami which showed floating islands of wood and housing and fishing gear. But these islands quickly dispersed. After a few days, the debris travelled as individual items and was not visible from satellite photographs. Some of the items will have moved into the middle of the North Pacific gyre, which is a large rotating current system in the Pacific Ocean. Other items have been transported by the huge eastward currents of the Pacific Ocean across to North America, where they were washed onto our shorelines.
The reality of the majority of tsunami debris is that we can’t tell the difference between tsunami debris and everyday marine debris. Only the occasional item has markings that allow us to trace it to Japan.
However, by looking at general trends in the volume of debris on our beaches, we can estimate which debris is likely to have come from the tsunami. For example, scientists predicted that lightweight Japanese items, which sit high in the water and are easily pushed by the wind, would arrive in the spring of 2012. And this is exactly when there was a large increase in the volume of styrofoam found on beaches in places like Ucluelet. Scientists predicted that heavier items that sit lower in the water would arrive later. Again, there was a large increase in the volume of heavy Japanese lumber, which floats just below the surface, at the predicted time. Using observations like this, we can understand how the debris is travelling.
Predicting when the items would arrive is really challenging because ocean currents and the weather can change quickly and unpredictably. For example, we had a relatively mild winter in 2013/2014 and fewer storms resulted in less Japanese items than expected. Some scientists are predicting that winter storms in 2014/2015 will create another pulse of Japanese items on our shorelines.
Some items can also carry the risk of invasive species from Japan. These species might not belong in our ecosystems and may pose a risk to native plants and animals. Cleanup groups need to be aware of this so that they can identify possible invasive species and prevent them from becoming part of our environment.
I understand that the Japanese do not like the use of the word debris when referring to the items that were swept out to see following the tsunami.
The phrase ‘tsunami debris’ can be difficult for some tsunami survivors to hear, because some of the items that were washed out into the ocean were their personal items. ‘Debris’ sounds like garbage, but personal items are not garbage. Other terms that can be used are ‘driftage’ or ‘floating articles.’.=
‘Marine debris’ is a commonly recognized term in North America, and ‘tsunami debris’ has become an accepted term here too. The reality is that much of what we find is not traceable or valuable because it is wood or foam or other non-personal items. However, we maintain the utmost respect for personal items we find on our beaches and make every effort we can to identify objects that could be returned to their owner.
Tell me about your recent trip to Japan.
We started with a workshop in Tokyo, travelled to Sakata to see the extent of everyday litter on Japanese beaches and toured the Pacific coast that was affected by the tsunami.
We started with a workshop in Tokyo, which was a great opportunity to learn about debris from the tsunami and shoreline litter in general in Japan, by meeting with Japanese government representatives and non-profits. Visiting a beach in Sakata allowed us to see everyday litter that washes in from the Sea of Japan, which Japan shares with their neighbours in China, Korea and Russia.
The most powerful part of the trip was visiting the Pacific coast, where the tsunami hit. Along with the other participants, I attended a public event in the town of Yuriage, where we shared updates about what we have been finding on our beaches in North America. After the public event, we toured areas that were affected by the tsunami, such as Okawa in Ishinomaki.
I am so grateful to JEAN for inviting me to take part in this powerful event. I had the opportunity to meet with other groups fighting marine debris and I learned about the huge human impact of the tsunami. I also had the opportunity to visit Japan for the first time. Everyone we met was so kind and generous. I learned so much about Japanese culture, ate delicious food and saw the beautiful scenery of Japan.
It sounds like a transformative experience . . .
I learned so much!
Firstly, most importantly, I learned about the human impact of the tsunami, which is not something you can learn about by reading news stories. It’s easy to think that the tsunami was a distant natural disaster that happened to other people on the other side of the world, without thinking too much about the implications of the disaster. But meeting the people affected by the tsunami made everything so much more real. One man we met lost 14 relatives. His house was destroyed and he only survived by climbing a tree. We saw survivors living in temporary housing 3.5 years after the event. We saw extensive plains where whole towns used to stand and now there’s just nothing left there. We visited Okawa Elementary School, where 74 children and 10 adults died. This was the saddest place I have ever been. I won’t be able to forget these memories and I don’t want to. Natural disasters are a horrible reality in our world and we all need to recognize the enormous, ongoing human impact of these events.
Secondly, I learned about how the ocean connects us all. From Hawaii to Japan to BC to Washington to Alaska, we are all neighbours around the Pacific Ocean. Since we are all connected to the same ocean, we all have a responsibility to protect the health of the ocean and reduce our impact in every way we can. This trip allowed the groups involved to form networks so that we can work together against marine debris. I will continue to stay in contact with my new friends from Japan, Hawaii, Washington and B.C. because I know we can all learn so much from each other.
Thirdly, I learned how important it is that we return personal items to their owners. The survivors of the tsunami lost so much. We want to do everything in our power to return any personal items we find on our beaches.
And lastly, I learned that I need to share this story with as many people as possible. I want to tell people about the tsunami and the items we find on our beaches from Japan. Through that story, I want to educate people about the health of our oceans and marine debris. I want people to feel empowered to act to help our oceans by joining the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup in 2015.
I imagine it was quite emotional, making that connection between the objects that are washing up on our shores and the places and people where they originated . . .
Yes, definitely an emotional trip. There were points when I was completely overwhelmed by what we were seeing. I have said the word ‘tsunami’ thousands of times since starting here in June, but after going to Japan, meeting tsunami survivors and seeing the extent of the damage… the word has changed for me.
Your work with tsunami debris is part of the larger project, the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup – tell me what that’s about.
I work on the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, presented by Loblaw Companies Limited, which is a joint conservation initiative of the Vancouver Aquarium and WWF. We encourage volunteers all over Canada to contribute to healthy shorelines by participating in shoreline cleanups at beaches, rivers, lakes, even drainage ditches. Every year, tens of thousands of Canadians register to contribute to healthy shorelines in their local communities.
The impact of cleaning a shoreline is twofold. Firstly, you are removing litter from the environment, which directly improves the health of your shoreline. Secondly, seeing the items that are discarded into our marine environment forces you to think about the items you use and the choices you make in your own life. This is an ongoing legacy of a shoreline cleanup and this is what inspires us to keep reaching out to engage Canadians. The dream is that one day we won’t need to do cleanups because there won’t be any litter on our shorelines!
You recently spent time cleaning up beaches on the West Coast Trail.
In September 2014, the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup coordinated a cleanup in collaboration with Parks Canada. Along with 12 volunteers, we spent three days cleaning up four kilometres of the West Coast Trail. We collected over four tons of debris, which was removed by helicopter and trucked to a recycling facility.
This was an incredible opportunity to see a very remote part of the world. The Trail is pristine wilderness that is part of a national park and no one lives out there. However, everywhere you go, you can see evidence of the damage that humans are doing to our environment, because marine debris has washed onto the beaches from the open ocean. We found 850 fishing buoys, 1,300 plastic water bottles, 30 car tires, hundreds of metres of rope and thousands of pieces of styrofoam. We also found several items of Japanese origin, including Japanese lumber from homes and household items. Sometimes items can be returned, but these particular items were not traceable to an individual. When we encounter Japanese items on a cleanup, we speak with our volunteers about the tsunami and how the ocean carried these items to our shores. We also take a moment to hope that the owners of the items survived the tsunami and are safe.
We saw sealions swimming near where we were working. I like to know that through our cleanup we reduced the chance that a sealion will be entangled in a net or a rope. We also saw many birds swimming and feeding near where we found huge pieces of styrofoam, which were breaking into tiny pieces. We have lessened the chance of these birds accidentally eating the foam and becoming sick.
The West Coast Trail trip was a fantastic opportunity to remove a significant amount of litter from a pristine part of the world.
What has the experience with the Japanese tsunami taught us . . . if anything?
Firstly, there is so much to be learned about emergency preparedness. The Japanese people were well prepared for disasters and well trained in emergency drills. Folks in Canada should learn about risks in their particular area and do what they can to be prepared. This could be as simple as preparing a ‘grab and go’ kit for emergencies, coming up with a plan for reuniting with your family and finding out your local evacuation point. These actions save lives in disasters.
Secondly, another lesson from the tsunami is that we are all connected by the ocean. A natural disaster on one side of the ocean impacted shorelines on the other side. Items we throw away everyday are getting into our oceans. This can be a frightening thought because the oceans are so big and overwhelming in size. But I see the connectedness as a positive thing, because it means that we all have the power to improve the health of our oceans through our own actions. We can each choose to get a reusable coffee mug to reduce the number of coffee mugs we throw out. We can each choose to use a metal water bottle rather than buying single use plastic bottles. We can each choose to take a reusable bag to the grocery store, rather than getting a plastic or paper bag. We can each choose to recycle or compost our waste. And best of all, we can each choose to take part in a shoreline cleanup with the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup and directly contribute to healthier shorelines and healthier oceans!
Along with the other shoreline cleanup groups who attended the event in Japan, I hope that one legacy of the tragic tsunami will be cleaner shorelines and increased awareness of marine debris.
Your talk, The Human Gyre: marine debris creating human connections across the Pacific, sounds fascinating.
I’ve heard the tsunami discussed in numbers and facts. But I want to share the human stories I learned about the tsunami while visiting Japan. People can expect to learn about how and when the items from Japan have been washing up on our shorelines. I will provide an update on tsunami debris cleanups in British Columbia. Most importantly, people can learn about how we are all connected by our oceans. They will learn about actions that we can all take in our everyday lives to help our oceans.
Why did the Japanese government donate money to Canada and the US to cleanup shorelines affected by debris from the tsunami?
Lots of people have asked me why the Japanese government gave us money to clean up our beaches. After all, the Japanese people are the ones who suffered a catastrophic natural disaster. My standard answer has been that the Japanese people genuinely feel guilty about all of their debris washing up on our shores. And this is definitely one aspect of the donation. Many people apologized to us at our public event.
But as I spoke about our cleanups at the public event in Yuriage, I realized the donation was much more than that. Thousands of Japanese people lost loved ones and all their possessions to the tsunami. Looking at the faces in that crowd, I saw a glimmer of hope that a memento from their loved ones might have survived the journey across the ocean to our shores. Personal items can provide a connection to someone who did not survive this disaster.
The donation from Japan supports cleanups but more importantly, provides a way for us to collect and return personal items to survivors who already lost so much. We will therefore continue to make every effort to identify items on our cleanups that may be traceable to an individual in Japan. After seeing the faces in the crowd, I now appreciate the immense power in returning items from a lost loved one.
Is tsunami debris radioactive?
Most of the debris was swept away during and immediately following the earthquake and tsunami, which was several days before the nuclear reactor plant leak. Much of the debris was from areas far from the nuclear reactor. Also, due to the length of time and conditions that the debris will have faced as it crossed the Pacific, it is expected that some, if not all, of the contamination will have dispersed. Japanese boats and other items washed out to sea by the tsunami have been tested for radioactivity and the results came back normal.
Learn how you can help your local shoreline at shorelinecleanup.ca. For more information on tsunami debris cleanups email email@example.com
2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami
On March 11, 2011, a magnitude-9 earthquake shook northeastern Japan. The largest earthquake to hit ever Japan and the fourth-largest recorded world-wide, it unleashed a devastating tsunami that took an enormous toll on human life and property along the Tohoku coastline.
In the aftermath of the tsunami, the Japanese Ministry of the Environment estimated that five million tons of debris was swept into the ocean, including houses, ships and vehicles. It is estimated that 70 percent of the debris sank offshore and another 1.5 million was carried into open water by ocean currents and wind.
Although initial predictions of a damaging influx of debris washing up on the west coast of North America proved to unfounded, there has been a measurable increase in the amount of waste littering beaches up and down the coast.
2011 Tsunami Facts
The tsunami flooded an estimated area of approximately 561 square kilometers in Japan.
The top speed of a tsunami over the open ocean was about 800 kilometers per hour, the normal cruising speed of a jetliner.
The warning time Sendai residents had before tsunami hit was eight to 10 minutes.
Of the more than 18,000 people killed in the disaster, most died by drowning.
About 400 km of Japan’s northern Honshu coastline dropped by 0.6 meters.
The jolt moved Japan’s main island of Honshu eastward by 2.4 meters.
The tsunami broke icebergs off the Sulzberger Ice Shelf in Antarctica.
As the tsunami crossed the Pacific Ocean, a 1.5 m high wave killed more than 110,000 nesting seabirds at the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.
A tsunami’s worth of ocean trash is created every year simply by the things we buy, use and throw away.