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Tsunami debris reveals one ocean, indivisible

The sheer power of the ocean and destructive tsunami force delivered a large floating dock to Oregon.

Last Friday was Oceans Day around the world and events both personal and global reminded me that an ocean like the Pacific creates a continuously evolving connectivity among human communities around its edges.

I live on the Oregon coast in Newport and last Tuesday a large piece of debris appeared on Agate Beach, not far from our house.  I went to look at it with my wife, Dr. Jessica Miller,  a marine scientist at the Hatfield Marine Science Center. It turned out to be a large floating dock torn from its moorings in the coastal fishing town of Misawa, Japan by the March 2011 tsunami.

A plaque identifying the Japanese dock that floated to Oregon's Agate Beach (below). Ed Backus via Flickr.
A plaque identifying the Japanese dock that floated to Oregon’s Agate Beach (below). Ed Backus via Flickr.

The Japanese marine life that floated on the dock to Pacific Coast

The interesting thing about the dock is that it had already been in the sea before the tsunami, and it carried an intact community of native Japanese marine life across the Pacific about 4,500 miles to our front doorstep —  from one fishing community to another.

We took some pictures of the fascinating marine creatures, and while we were exploring the dock a news crew from Portland arrived and we ended up on the evening news.

Marine life attached to the Japanese dock that floated across the Pacific Ocean
Marine life attached to the dock.

The next day Jessica organized a systematic sampling of the organisms with several of her colleagues from Oregon State University; by then, of course, they were concerned about invasive species, a real issue all around the Pacific and the globe. Over the next few days the invasives question grabbed national attention, picked up by over 900 news outlets including National Public Radio and NBC Nightly News.

The sheer power of the ocean and the destructive force of the tsunami was front and center again — this train car-sized object delivered to our shores from anything but an intact community. Misawa suffered enormous damage along with other communities along the Honshu coast. It turns out that there is a U.S. airbase in Misawa, a legacy of war and peace waged over the Pacific. U.S. service personnel reached out to local communities to offer assistance and support after the tsunami.

In 2005, I attended a meeting of the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission — the commission on salmon — in Hokkaido, northern Japan. This organization addresses cooperative management issues of widely shared salmon resources that link the entire North Pacific Ocean. We are, in fact, a single region in that sense, extending from California’s salmon rivers up around Alaska and the Bering Sea and south through Russia to salmon runs in Korea and northern Japan. What impressed me during our field trips was the high level of organization of local Japanese village fisheries cooperatives that operate coastal fisheries, process, and market local seafood products.

In fact, 10 years ago several U.S. foundations supported the exploration of how community-based fishing strategies in other countries around the world, including Japan, might apply to the United States.  This work led Ecotrust in 2005 to organize a national gathering of fishing communities in Sitka, Alaska, which ultimately led to the formation of the Community Fisheries Network.

Everybody is looking do away with that floating dock from Misawa — the marine life on it was burned off, and it’ll be dismantled soon. Rightly so. But it’s worth pausing to consider the Pacific Ocean that we share with one another and with other countries, and to remember its connective power, along with its destructive, disruptive force.  The opportunities to learn from other people and places around the Pacific will help us be better stewards, stay accountable to each other and adapt to the fast changing world.