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B.C. coastal debris believed from Japan disaster

Jean-Paul Froment holds debris that has washed up on beaches near Tofino, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, on Chesterman's Beach.

Deddeda Stemler for The Globe and Mail/deddeda stemler The Globe and Mail

It started with lumber bearing Japanese stamps. Then plastic bottles began appearing. Common enough, but these bore Japanese characters. And on Sunday, a toothbrush with Japanese lettering, and a baby's sock.

The items found on the West Coast are believed to be remnants of the 8.9 magnitude earthquake and resulting seven-metre tsunami that hit northeast Japan on March 11.

Anticipating the arrival of some of a 100-million-ton mass of debris from Japan estimated to cover an area the size of Ontario, the organizer of a website that's cataloguing objects is bracing for upsetting discoveries.

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"There could be some pretty morbid finds," said Tofino, B.C., resident Jean-Paul Froment, who is using his Live to Surf business website as an unofficial archive.

Tofino Mayor Perry Schmunk, who found the sock, toothbrush and several plastic bottles during his Sunday beach walk, considers the discoveries both eerie and sad.

"One thing that's key: Whether it be a small item or a piece of lumber, we've got to be sensitive to it. There's a very human dimension involved," Mr. Schmunk said. "This isn't a careless piece of litter showing up on a beach. It's the result of one of the biggest human tragedies in recent times."

Yet the potential for the items to be classified as garbage is very real.

Aware that the Japanese objects represent calamity writ large, Mr. Froment, who has lived in Tofino for 30 of his 32 years, said by the time the debris reaches B.C. shores, not much will be salvageable, and in fact, much could be hazardous to surfers and boaters.

There's also concern that debris that could be difficult to remove or toxic could spoil the area's world-famous pristine beaches. Assistance from the provincial government will be requested if the cleanup becomes overwhelming, Mr. Schmunk said.

"This is a wake-up call. We could have significant problems on our hands," he said.

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After items began showing up in early December, Mr. Schmunk began an informal survey of local surfers and beach walkers. "I asked around, if they've seen more stuff than normal, and they all said, yes, there's definitely been a higher incidence than normal. The correlation is too strong to be coincidental," he said. If beachcombers are lucky, one discovery is usually made every two to three months.

University of Victoria assistant professor Jody Klymak said the wood, which protrudes from the water and can therefore be propelled quickly by winds, could be outfall from the March 11 disaster.

Mr. Klymak, who teaches in the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, said items such as fishing or mooring floats that project from the water will cross the Pacific faster than other debris.

In early December, a Japanese fishing float was found in Neah Bay on Washington State's northwest tip – about 90 kilometres south of Ucluelet. It's believed to have come from an oyster farm in Japan's tsunami-stricken area.

But Mr. Klymak doubts that the non-wood finds are from Japan. "It seems unlikely small items would have already arrived."

He considers the discoveries "coincidences." The objects may also have come off freighters, and people looking for Japanese items may have ramped up their scouring, finding things they might otherwise have overlooked, he noted.

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University of Hawaii scientists predict that Japanese debris won't hit North American shores until 2014 at the earliest.

Ocean debris typically moves about 11 kilometres a day, but larger items pushed by wind can cover 32 kilometres a day. The distance from northeast Japan to Vancouver Island's west coast is about 7,200 kilometres, so a fast-moving item theoretically could arrive in 225 days.

As of Dec. 21, it's been 285 days since the Japanese tsunami.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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