03/13/2013 02:47 EDT | Updated 07/28/2014 12:59 EDT

Tsunami Debris Cleanup In BC Gets $1 Million From Japan

VANCOUVER - After an earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan two years ago, Canada was among the first nations to offer help.

Within a few days, millions of dollars had already been donated for tsunami relief by Canadians and the federal government had pledged equipment and funds.

Japan offered thanks on Wednesday, with a $1 million "token of gratitude" that will go toward the cost of cleaning up tsunami debris that washes up on West Coast shores.

"Canadians from all walks of life opened their hearts to the victims," said Japanese Consul General Seiji Okada, reading a message from Japanese ambassador to Canada Kaoru Ishikawa.

Contributions to the Canadian Red Cross tsunami relief fund alone totalled almost $50 million, he noted. Canada and Canadians were at the forefront of an overwhelming international response to the tragedy, Okada said.

"Even more uplifting during those dark days, however, was the sincere compassion and the solidarity conveyed to the Japanese people by individual Canadians of all ages living from coast to coast," Okada said at a news conference in Vancouver.

Canada "proved to be a stalwart and reliable friend throughout the most difficult of times."

Federal Environment Minister Peter Kent said Ottawa will turn the money over to the province, which earmarked the funds for coastal communities and First Nations that are dealing with the clean-up.

The Japanese government estimates that about 1.5 million tonnes of debris was washed out into the Pacific Ocean in the aftermath of the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami in northeast Japan. Much of that is believed to remain in the ocean.

"Most of the high-flotation material like Styrofoam, plastics is already here... the volumes haven't been nearly what we feared," Lake said.

"There's a lot of stuff that's put in the ocean every day and this incident has shone a light on the problem of debris in the ocean generally."

Lake said only 21 items found on B.C. beaches have been confirmed to have originated in the tsunami, including a Harley Davidson that appeared in a shipping container off the B.C. coast last April.

In Oregon, a dock the size of a box car landed on a beach covered in crabs and algae last summer and sparked concerns that invasive species could be carried across the ocean and threaten native species in North America.

And last August, a small Japanese vessel was found on Spring Island, off northwest Vancouver Island, from the Fukushima prefecture, where a nuclear plant melted down in the days after the earthquake.

A field team from Health Canada's Radiation Protection Bureau's Nuclear Emergency Preparedness and Response division took radiation measurements from the vessel, and tests found no detectable trace of radiation, said a recent report by the Health Canada.

"That fear has largely been put to rest," Lake said.

Officials and clean-up volunteers are on the lookout for invasive species and toxic debris, he said. For example, a large tank that showed up near Haida Gwaii was contained and tested to ensure it was not a contaminant.

A portion of the $1 million grant from Japan will be set aside to cover future costs, Lake said.

The most recent predictions by the Japanese government suggested that most of the floating debris had reached the West Coast of North America by last August. Subsurface debris — heavier objects not being propelled by wind — could start to reach this coast this June.

Kent paid tribute to the resiliency and the courage of the Japanese people in the wake of the tsunami, and to the response of Canadians.

"Mother Nature has a terrible way of reminding us of her immense power and what we all witnessed on that day truly underscored our fragility as human beings," Kent said.

Okada said the March 11, 2011 earthquake devastated much of northeast Japan. Entire towns and villages were swept away, hundreds of thousands of lives lost or profoundly changed.

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