Posted on: September 25, 2013

PWF Staff Demonstrates Protocol for Handling Suspected Tsunami Debris and Hitchhiker Invasive Species

A plastic float ball marked with what could be Japanese lettering and partly encrusted with gooseneck barnacles and blue mussels is being treated as potential Japanese tsunami debris, after it was discovered in the 'Au'Au Channel by Pacific Whale Foundation crew returning from a snorkel cruise to Lana'i on Sunday, September 22.
The crew, which had been trained in protocols developed by Hawaii's Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) and NOAA for handling suspected tsunami debris from Japan, retrieved the item at 1:15 pm.
Because they were also trained to know that blue mussels are an invasive species not native to Hawaii, they took steps to keep the mussels out of the ocean. The mussels were carefully scraped off the ball into a plastic bag, then refrigerated. The team contacted officials from Hawaii's Department of Land and Natural Resources, who provided instructions to Pacific Whale Foundation on handling the mussels.
Per DLNR's instructions, the mussel samples are now being sent to a lab in Connecticut to be biopsied to help determine their origin. 
"The crew's training in the DLNR and NOAA protocol helped them understand the danger that the blue mussels pose to Hawaii's marine environment," says Lauren Campbell, Conservation Manager at Pacific Whale Foundation. "Had the mussels been scraped off into the ocean or harbor, it could have started an invasion of this unwelcome species here." 
Campbell organized the training for the staff after reading about the threats posed by tsunami debris arriving in Hawaii. 
"Pacific Whale Foundation organizes and conducts regular surveys and clean-ups of marine debris on Maui's beaches, noting anything that might be considered tsunami debris," she says. "With the number of ocean ecotours conducted by our vessels, I thought it would be wise to include our boats in monitoring for tsunami debris." 
Pacific Whale Foundation's company policy already dictates that its vessels stop to pick up marine debris in the ocean whenever possible. Campbell's training ensured that all of Pacific Whale Foundation's captains and vessel staff would understand how to handle suspected tsunami debris, especially debris that might be carrying unwanted or invasive aquatic organisms. 
Campbell referred to NOAA's website at The site includes photos of gooseneck barnacles, which are not of concern as an invasive species, and blue mussels, which are a concern. 
Certain species of chitons, limpets and crabs native to Japanese waters are also considered a concern.  
According to the website, suspected tsunami debris with living marine organisms should be removed from the water or shoreline, if it can be done so safely, and placed in a large trash bag. Items that are large but movable should be moved out of the wash of the waves. DLNR should be contacted about items that are not movable.
The organisms should not be brushed or washed off the item. The website urges the public to not eat the organisms or move debris with the organisms on it into other bodies of water, such as an aquarium or pond. 
There were six large blue mussels on the float ball discovered by Pacific Whale Foundation. Campbell is eager to learn if the lab reports find whether the mussels are thought to have originated in Japan. Blue mussels are also native to the Pacific Northwest of the United States. 
Japanese officials estimate that nearly 5 million tons of debris was swept into the ocean as a result of the tsunami, with about 70% of that debris sinking immediately off shore. To date, only 30 pieces of debris picked up along the North American West Coast and Hawaii have been officially confirmed as Japan Tsunami debris.  
"That means that 1.5 milion tons of tsunami debris are still floating," says Campbell. She hopes that all of Maui's recreational and commercial vessel operators take the time to study DLNR's Japan Tsunami Debris guidelines and to train all crew in the protocol. 
"This is an example of how we all can make a difference by keeping a vigilant eye and taking appropriate action," she says. 
Pacific Whale Foundation is a nonprofit 501 (c)(3) charitable organization dedicated to protecting our oceans through science and advocacy. Pacific Whale Foundation largely self-funds its work by offering ocean ecotours, including whalewatches, snorkel cruises and other ocean adventures off the coast of Maui. To learn more, please visit 
Location of marine debris: see green arrow.