Surf's up: Group keeps lookout for tsunami debris on area beaches



Surf’s up: Group keeps lookout for tsunami debris on area beaches

By Arwen Rice
Peninsula Daily News


NEAH BAY — If there is anyone who knows about beach debris, it’s surfers.

Surfers often travel the world seeking the perfect wave — but to get to the waves, they have to cross the beach.

In 1984 a group of Malibu, Calif., surfers, tired of battling trash to get to the waves, created the Surfrider Foundation, an organization dedicated to keeping beaches and water near beaches clean, healthy and accessible.

Today, the Surfrider Foundation boasts more than 50,000 members in 63 chapters across the United States and Puerto Rico, and international affiliates in Australia, Brazil, Europe and Japan.

And occasionally, the trash they find becomes an international news event.

Marine float

When members of the Olympic Peninsula chapter of the Surf­rider Foundation worked to clean an isolated, difficult-to-access beach near Neah Bay, there was one unusual piece of debris: a yard-long, black-jelly-bean-shaped marine float.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Arnold Schouten, a longtime surfer, Port Angeles lumber-building supply executive and Surf­rider member who has been cleaning debris from Peninsula beaches since 1974.

But it had to wait because there was no way to get the pile of trash off the beach.

Schouten said the beach where it was collected is owned by the Makah tribe, extremely remote and can only be accessed by rappell­ing down a steep hillside.

Boat landings are too dangerous because of the rough surf, he said.

Volunteers from Surfrider piled the trash above the high tide line in September and October, waiting for a way to get the trash off the beach.

Schouten said the float was not there during the September collection and was on the beach at the end of October.

It could have arrived at any time between the beach cleanups, he said.

The trash was finally removed from the beaches Nov. 17, when a group from Surfrider and Coast Guard volunteers rappelled to the beach, put the debris in nets and hooked it to a helicopter from Air Station/Sector Field Office Port Angeles.

“It was the first time we had to use a helicopter,” Schouten said.

More than 1,800 pounds of trash was removed from the beach that day, he said.

The debris was trailered to Schouten’s home so that oceanographers Curtis Ebbesmeyer and Jim Ingraham could sort through the trash, crab pots, nets and other things that washed up.

Ebbesmeyer and Ingraham are ocean-current specialists who developed a computer model of ocean and wind currents based on floating debris such as Nike shoes and rubber ducks that escaped from shipping containers.

Predicting model

Their model, called Ocean Surface Currents Simulation, predicted that floating debris that had a large wind-exposed surface should have begun arriving on eastern Pacific shores by November and were searching for the first items that could be identified as debris from the massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan last March.

On Dec. 15, the pair arrived in Port Angeles and quickly homed in on the float, which Ebbesmeyer said was unique in their years of collecting beach debris, and announced their find that night at a community presentation on tsunami debris at Peninsula College.

Once their find was made public, beachcombers who frequent LaPush- and Neah Bay-area beaches reported a half-dozen finds of nearly identical floats, all within the previous month.

The oceanographers’ models included a prediction that some of the debris could be caught in currents and show up on beaches from Port Angeles to Port Townsend.

The Olympic Peninsula Surf­rider group, which was founded in 2000, has about 40 members, including surfers, kayakers, paddle­boarders and some members who simply want to support clean water, clean beaches and beach access.

There are few accessible beaches in Washington because of issues with land ownership, Schouten said.

Surfrider treasurer David Parks explained that local entities and tribes, such as the Quileute and Makah, often work with the Surfrider Foundation, to their shared benefit.

Cleaning up

Surfers use the tribal beaches, and the beaches are thoroughly cleaned.

However, the possible scale of the tsunami debris field’s arrival is a bit overwhelming to the low-budget, enthusiastic group.

“We don’t have the capacity for the volume,” Parks said.

The organization is fully funded by members and receives no tax dollars.

The group is looking into applying for grants to help with some of what it already does and prepare for the coming debris tide but said it is waiting for a local, state or federal agency to step forward to take the lead.

Surfrider Darryl Wood, who has been surfing and cleaning beaches on the Olympic Peninsula since 1963, said he is hoping a local person is put in charge, someone who understands the area beaches.

Some beaches collect trash regularly; others remain pristine with no help from the Surfriders, Wood said.

He said that in Grays Harbor County, Westport beach almost never has trash, while tides deposit and remove debris from Ocean Shores to the north almost every day.

‘No baseline’

If an agency tried to survey beaches to determine a baseline, it would be of little use.

“There is no baseline for what we can expect,” Parks said.

The direction of storms, wind and currents changes, sometimes piling debris on one beach, sometimes on another.

“Beaches change almost every day,” he said.

After attending Ebbesmeyer’s and Ingraham’s December presentation on tsunami debris drift, the group’s next beach cleanup will produce different views of what the members will see in the things they pull from the beach.

“I think we’ll all be looking at debris a little differently,” Parks said.

Surfrider secretary Eric Waterkotte said he once thought of beach debris as things left behind by inconsiderate beach-goers.

‘Stories behind it’

“I never thought about where this stuff comes from and the stories behind it,” Waterkotte said….


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