The coastal community of Tofino, B.C., spent the Christmas season mentally preparing for the grim task of collecting, sorting and cataloguing debris from the tsunami that devastated parts of coastal Japan early this year.
Mayor Perry Schmunk is certain that items that were washed away in the March 11 disaster in northern Japan have already made it to B.C. shores, in particular at the surfing capital of Long Beach.
"Definitely this stuff is increasing in incidence that is coming ashore," Schmunk said, pointing to some lumber with Japanese export stamps on it.
Although plastic water bottles with Japanese labels began washing ashore near Tofino at the beginning of December, some locals believed them to be typical ocean garbage.
Schmunk said that what has appeared since then is definitely not the normal garbage.
"There [are] some personal items starting to show up, things like a toothbrush, socks — that sort of thing. Again, not the typical bottles," he told CBC News on Monday.
He said it is just the tip of a massive amount of debris predicted to be shifted by ocean currents toward the B.C. coast in 2014.
"We are starting communication with the other government agencies because, potentially, this will be a much bigger problem than us at the municipal level can respond to," Schmunk said.
B.C. has jurisdiction over hazards, bodies
The B.C. government has said it will begin working with national and municipal officials in January to prepare for arrival of the debris, but the task could be overwhelming even with strong federal co-operation and support.
"We're starting those conversations with the different agencies involved, namely, the Ministry of Environment, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the Integrated Land Management Bureau, which in B.C. is responsible for the beaches themselves, and the Emergency Management Agency of B.C."
Schmunk said that the province has jurisdiction over many potential health and safety matters that could arise, including testing debris for possible radioactive contamination from the Fukushima nuclear reactor ruptures.
The province would also handle human remains that are found anywhere on the coast.
As many as 21,000 people were killed in the earthquake and tsunami, and the bodies of approximately 8,500 of those have not yet been recovered.
Schmunk said that many of the personal effects that wash ashore could have belonged to the victims, and would hold a great deal of significance for surviving family members.
"We'll look to handle a lot of what could come ashore with some great sensitivity," Schmunk said.
"We are asking everybody that does come in contact with anything that does come ashore that they deal with it with respect."
Website of photos proposed
Volunteers in and around the town of Tofino have so far been collecting debris combed from the beaches, but it isn't a large volume so far.
Schmunk has proposed that photos of the finds could be posted online.
"Some of the residents in town, myself included, have photographed these items and we'll probably create a common website so that people can search through these photos," he said.
"There's definitely the potential for some of the stuff that comes ashore to be of significant personal value."
In October, scientists in Hawaii estimated that as much as 18 million tonnes of material could have been washed into the ocean, and estimated the debris field to be spread out over an area the size of the state of California.