By Ygal Kaufman
The Tōhoku earthquake of 2011 caused the tsunami that killed nearly 16,000 people and left thousands more missing. The tsunami also caused debris to spread all over the place, including a great deal of it washing up on our pacific coastline. Still it was nearly four years ago, so it came as quite a shock when Japanese shipping vessels, some 30 of them, washed up on shore this past spring. New signs are all pointing to more on the way, including a potential wave of activity in the near future.
While this all has scavenging enthusiasts and Japanese boat watchers very excited, there are some real concerns in the scientific community about the threats from invasive species. That may sound lower on the list of dangers than unexpected large unmanned vessels smashing into shore, but it’s not.
On June 5th 2012, a Japanese dock (yes, the whole thing, a big concrete dock) washed ashore on Agate Beach, and it was teeming with diverse sea organisms. While tourists flocked to see it, scientists have been studying everything that was crawling all over it, and trying to make sure they could identify it all and know what they were dealing with. But the dock wasn’t the only thing with stowaways.
Some of the ships have been carrying some pretty gnarly sounding critters, including bat stars (sea stars with what looks like bat wings, seriously). Those didn’t turn out to be harbingers of doom, but there is concern that an invasive species we don’t understand could run wild in our waters.
OSU researchers, including John Chapman from the Hatfield Marine Science Center, are among those trying to identify everything on the debris, and preparing for waves of new stuff to look through. They’ll be genetically testing everything they find so they can know whether we’ve seen it before or not.
“We’re also doing a lot of old-fashioned looking,” said Chapman in an OSU press release, “But new species can be difficult to identify if you aren’t searching for them directly in the first place.”