As the tsunami debris cleanup coordinator at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre, I have spoken a great deal about the 2011 Japanese tsunami. I have hosted lectures and events explaining why we find Japanese items on the beaches of British Columbia and discussed when scientists predicted driftage from the tsunami to arrive.

However, it wasn’t until I actually visited Japan, on a recent trip supported by the Japanese non-profit JEAN, that the importance of shoreline cleanups in B.C. really hit me. I was speaking about our remote beach cleanups at a public event in Yuriage, a small fishing town in Japan that was almost completely destroyed by the tsunami. Survivors and residents from surrounding areas came to the event to hear about our cleanups.

Tsunami debris cleanup in Japan

Survivors, residents and volunteers from surrounding areas at the public event in Yuriage.

The Government of Japan donated millions to the U.S .and Canada to support the cleanup of tsunami driftage on our western coastlines. Even though the majority of debris on our shorelines comes from everyday litter and not tsunamis, one resident from Yuriage apologized to the attendants from North America, saying: “We were embarrassed that our debris was washing ashore in North America.”

As I spoke about our cleanups, I saw children, elderly people and government representatives in the audience, and I realized the donation to North America was much more than just generosity. Thousands of Japanese people lost loved ones and all their possessions to the tsunami. One man we met had lost 14 family members along with all of his belongings. Looking at the faces in the crowd, I saw a glimmer of hope that a memento from their loved ones might have survived the journey across the ocean to our shores. Personal items can provide a link to the past, a connection with someone who did not survive this disaster.

On our remote shoreline cleanups numerous items have been identified as coming from Japan, although not many with ID markings. The donation from the Japanese government helps to fund these cleanups and provides a way for Canadians to collect and return personal items to survivors who already lost so much. After seeing the faces in the crowd, I now appreciate the immense power in returning items from a lost loved one.

Tsunami debris cleanup in Japan

Marine debris has taken me from the West Coast Trail, B.C., to Yuriage, Japan.

Participate in a shoreline cleanup in your neighbourhood by registering this spring for the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, presented by Loblaw Companies Limited.  Interested in organizing a remote shoreline cleanup or learning more about tsunami debris? Email us at tsunamidebris@vanaqua.org

Kate Le Souef, tsunami debris cleanup coordinator for Vancouver Aquarium and WWF’s Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, travelled to Japan to learn more about the impact of tsunami debris. This trip was generously provided by the Japanese Environmental Action Network. Kate is sharing her experience over a series of blog posts.

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