A 20-foot fishing boat that washed ashore in Crescent City on Sunday night is believed to be the first tsunami debris to land on California shores from the 2011 disaster in Japan.
"This is the first piece of debris that we will be sending through the consulate (general of Japan)," said Sherry Lippiatt, the NOAA Marine Debris Program's California regional coordinator. "There hasn't been any other debris in California with unique markings that could possibly be traced back to the tsunami."
NOAA officials hope that the Japanese writing on the boat, thought to be the vessel's registration numbers, can be used to find out whether it washed to sea with receding tsunami waters, a technique that has worked to identify other boats washed ashore on the West Coast.
Around 8:30 p.m. Sunday, local authorities received a 911 call regarding four men attempting to haul a boat from Crescent City's South Beach near the closed Beachcomber Restaurant, "probably to take it home, because it doesn't look that bad for what it's been through," said Del Norte County Sheriff's Commander Bill Steven.
Sheriff's deputies told the men that they could not keep their beach-score and hauled the boat to the fenced parking lot behind the sheriff's station. On Monday morning, it was examined by members of Humboldt State University's Redwood Coast Tsunami Work Group, an interagency group that works to reduce earthquake and tsunami hazards.
"It's certainly the first thing that has enough information where we might be able to clearly trace it to the Japan tsunami," said Lori Dengler, professor and chair of the HSU Geology Department and a member of the tsunami work group. Dengler traveled to Crescent City on Monday to collect information like the Japanese registration numbers, along with other members of the tsunami work group.
Dengler said that besides the Japanese writing, there were a few other reasons to believe the boat came from Japan:
andbull; The size of the largest barnacles attached to the boat indicate it has been derelict for at least a year.
andbull; Pieces of rope tied to the bow and stern appear to have been forcibly ripped "consistent with having been jerked away suddenly by a tsunami," Dengler said.
andbull; The type of boat, a flat-floored "Marine 6" Panga boat, is common in the Western Pacific.
"It's not definitive but we have all of these little pieces of circumstantial evidence," Dengler said.
"We are working with the Japanese government through the local consulate to confirm the source of any debris that we can," said Keeley Belva, a spokesperson of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "It's challenging to confirm something;we need to have some sort of identification."
Out of about 1,700 reports of potential Japanese tsunami debris that NOAA has received, only about 25 items have been confirmed to be from the 2011 tsunami, Belva said.
With one of the largest international fishing fleets, Japan is a large contributor to everyday marine debris in the Pacific Ocean, Dengler said.
"Marine debris is a problem in general," Belva said. "There are things with Japanese writing that might not even be from Japan."
The boat appears to have spent the majority of its journey upside-down: what appeared to be gooseneck barnacles were attached to almost every square inch of the top rim and inside of the hull, while the bottom of the boat was free of marine life.
Sean Craig, an invertebrate zoologist at Humboldt State University, was examining samples of the critters Monday afternoon that were given to him by Dengler.
"My first impression is that they are something called Lepas anatifera,"Craig said, adding they are also known by the common name Pelagic gooseneck barnacle. There are three or four different species known as gooseneck barnacles in the ocean, and on Monday afternoon Craig had not yet had a definitive answer about the species. "Since it may have come from Japan, I'll want to take a closer look.
The gooseneck barnacles are similar to other barnacles except for the long, fleshy stalk that the animals use to attach to floating objects. Because "any floating object coming across the ocean would often be covered with these things," their identification is not likely to help determine where the boat came from, Craig said.
"It could've come from almost anywhere out on the Pacific, because it's a very widely distributed species," Craig said.
Gooseneck barnacles are considered an edible delicacy in some circles and a certain species, called Percebes, can fetch a price of 100 Euros per kilo in Portugal and Spain.
Craig said there is not an invasive species concern for these barnacles, but the Sheriff's Office will keep the discarded species away from the ocean as a precaution.
The closest piece of debris to come ashore near Crescent City that can be traced back to the 2011 Japan disaster with certainty was a 30-foot derelict fishing vessel that came ashore near Coos Bay, Ore., last June. Two other small fishing boats that can be traced to the Japan tsunami with certainty already washed ashore; one in Cannon Beach, Ore. and another in Long Beach, Wash. The latter contained five striped beakfish, native to Japan, that hitched a ride across the Pacific inside the boat's water-filled bait box.
Dengler said that southern winds currently hitting the North Coast could contribute to Crescent City finally receiving tsunami debris.
"Having these south winds is when we tend to get debris concentrated on our beaches. If you have currents blowing from the south, they will tend to be deflected toward the coast," Dengler said. "It's something we call the Coriolis Effect."
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