Oregon State University

Exploring the Unexpected

Japanese Dock on Agate Beach

When a 9.0 earthquake – one of the strongest ever recorded – occurred off the coast of Japan in March 2011, it triggered an equally powerful tsunami.  Together, the two events generated unparalleled devastation in Japan.

Although the Pacific Northwest wasn’t affected directly by the earthquake itself, the debris unleashed by the tsunami has provided many reminders of its destructive power.

Skiffs, ships, and soccer balls were pulled out to sea, caught in strong ocean currents and steered by shifting winds.  A Japanese fishing vessel was torn from its dock and sent on a voyage estimated at more than 4500 miles.  Four floating docks built of concrete, steel and Styrofoam were ripped from their moorings and slipped out to sea.  A Harley-Davidson motorcycle, seemingly safely stored in a private yard, was carried out on a wave.  

In April 2012 – nearly 13 months later – the fishing vessel, which had been previously scheduled to be scrapped, was spotted in U.S. waters.  Adrift in shipping lanes without power, lights, or crew, it posed a significant danger to marine traffic, so was sunk by the U.S. Coast Guard.

A week or so later, the Harley-Davidson was found off the coast of British Columbia and traced back to its owner in Japan by its license plate.  The bike, along with golf clubs and camping equipment, had been stored in a buoyant sea container; all items survived the journey.

In June 2012, the first dock washed ashore in Newport, Oregon.  Six months later the second dock was found in a remote section of Olympic National Park in Washington.  The third dock, previously reported to be floating near Oahu, Hawaii, has not been sighted since.  As for the fourth dock, some say it may never have made it made it out of the harbor; like most other debris, it may simply have sunk. 

The earthquake, tsunami, and debris field have provided an unparalleled opportunity for researchers to study probable causes as well as unexpected effects.  Plans have been made to improve navigational safety, effectively remove debris, expand earthquake disaster plans, and update coastal tsunami maps.  In parallel with these efforts Jessica Miller and her peers have tried to understand what this event might mean to our natural resources, so they've focused on the miniscule hitchhikers that have ridden the waves across the Pacific. Jessica, a fisheries ecologist at the Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station in Newport, was able to take visit the first dock just hours after its arrival. And, as lead for OSU’s Biological and Ecological Research Team (Action Coordination Team), she has been involved in research that provides insight into biological invasions and better ways to monitor potential invaders.

For more information about her research, see OSU’s article, Pacific Invasion.  For a webinar, well-illustrated with photos, see Tracking Marine Biota on Japanese Tsunami Debris.

For additional information:

The Oregonian’s continuing coverage of tsunami debris

The Oregonian:  Terry Thompson and John Chapman’s trip to Misawa

The Oregon Quarterly: Big wave, small world   

Nature Magazine:  Tsunami triggers invasion concerns

The Seattle Times:  Tsunami mystery   

realscience.us:  Japanese tsunami debris enters U.S. coastal waters  

Oregon Invasive Species Online Hotline

NOAA Marine Debris Program website


Images of tsunami invasives and researchers


Contact Info

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2030 SE Marine Science Drive
Newport, OR  97365
Tel:  541 867-0230
(at the Hatfield 
Marine Science Center)


2001 Marine Drive, Room 253
Astoria, OR  97103
503 325-4531
(at the Seafood Research 
& Education Center)