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When most people conjure up images of tsunami destruction they picture houses reduced to piles of rubble, massive flooding and cars dumped on top of three story buildings. While these images would be accurate of the kinds of massive destruction a tsunami can cause, as I learned on my recent trip to Japan, there are often just as harrowing images in a place most don’t see — beneath the surface of the ocean.

Japan Tsunami Debris

Rubble is visable above the surface, but we can’t see what lurks beneath.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to visit Japan as part of the Japanese non-profit JEAN, to learn more about tsunami debris cleanup efforts and how we can work together from across the ocean to both remove debris from our beaches, and work to return personal items to the Japanese people whenever possible.

In my work as the tsunami debris coordinator at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre, I have coordinated a number of cleanups with funding from the government of Japan. However, as I quickly learned on this recent trip, there is much cleanup work to be done under the water as well.

Dive restoration in Japan

Mr. Sakamoto, a volunteer diver with the Sea Beautification Society in Japan

Many of the communities in Japan destroyed by the tsunami relied on fishing. For the survivors, the tsunami may have taken their loved ones, their houses and their boats. As if that wasn’t enough, even if they could get out on the ocean to fish again, much of the underwater fish habitat was destroyed by the force of the tsunami and the huge volume of material dumped on the seabed.

Japan Tsunami

Volunteer divers create artificial squid habitat.

This is where the Sea Beautification Society steps in. They restore fish habitat by replanting seaweed and providing artificial habitat while the seaweed grows. Once the fish return to the area, they hope that the fishing industry can start to recover. On my last day in Japan, I got to witness volunteer divers at work, removing tons of rubble from the Japan seabed.

Just like this seabed in Japan, ecosystems such as Howe Sound  are vulnerable to human impact. While debris generated by natural disasters is unavoidable, we can all prevent our own garbage from getting in to our oceans. On last year’s dive cleanup in Ottawa, Ontario, in just over the span of one hour hundreds of pounds of garbage were removed from the Rideau Canal with the help of the Ottawa Police Services Marine Dive and Trail Unit.

While not everyone may be certified to participate in underwater habitat restoration, you can join us in the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup and help to cleanup a waterway in your neighbourhood. Registration opens March 1. To learn more, visit shorelinecleanup.ca.

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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