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Bits and Pieces of People's Lives: NOAA Investigates Origin of Recent Ocean Debris as People of Japan Wait

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Bits and pieces of people's lives, that is what one reporter said; we are not to think of the Japan tsunami debris as litter when it begins to wash up on our shores in 2013, but rather as bits and pieces of people's lives. But is it already washing up on our shores?

2011 ended with a wave of sensationalized headlines from British Columbia, Alaska and Washington, reporting sightings of debris from the Japan tsunami already reaching shore on the West Coast; setting off a contentious debate between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and a few independent oceanographers and flotsam trackers. Waiting for word on the other side of the Pacific, are the people of Japan whose missing families and friends are symbolically represented in the bits and pieces of debris.

While painting a picture of 20 million tons of plastic and paper and metal and wood stretching a thousand miles across the Pacific Ocean, some news stories are also raising fear of radiation as a result of the Fukushima meltdown, and others even speak of the possibility of macabre scenes of body parts washing up on our beaches as severed feet in tennis shoes.

In response, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), has been scrambling to keep up with this still developing and constantly changing story. The latest information concerning the Japan tsunami debris can be found on these two websites which should provide you with the most up to date scientific information and answers to the questions you might have: The Marine Debris Program: http://marinedebris.noaa.gov/info/japanfaqs.html; and The National Ocean Service: http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/news/features/dec11/japan-tsunami-debris.html.

Most recognize that this story deserves great humanitarian reverence and cultural sensitivity for the victims and their families. But there are many who are not as eloquent in their description or mindful in their comments, and who continue to refer to the debris from this natural disaster as simply Japan's trash, a floating stream of junk, a garbage patch!

The tsunami debris is real, it is out there, and we are tracking it. Whether the first traces are washing ashore or not is academic. By every measure, the tsunami debris represents an environmental disaster coming toward us. So does it really matter what people call it?

I think it does, here's why:

That garbage patch -- those bits and pieces of people's lives -- began their journey toward us as Japan was rocked by the massive Tohoku Earthquake. As if not to be outdone by the wrath of the shifting earth that day, the ocean too roared with the fury of the ensuing tsunami. That earthquake and the tsunami that followed, took 15,700 lives, injured 5,314, and displaced 130,927. It also left nearly 4,647 men, women and children still missing; lost to the sea and to the ages, along with all the bits and pieces that made up their lives.

We were on the merciful end of the tsunami surge that wreaked havoc along the West Coast in places like Santa Cruz and Crescent City. I say that because on the other end -- the end of the tsunami that ravaged Japan -- it was cruelly lethal. People's lives became nothing more than bits and pieces to be swept up by the tsunami, pulled back into the ocean, and lost forever.

And so began the journey of those bits and pieces of people's lives.

Now another surge is coming to the West Coast. This time carrying the bits and pieces of the Tohoku victim's lives; lives that were taken, lives that were lost, lives that are still missing and missed by those whom they loved and who loved them.

The environmental threat we face as the tsunami debris continues its somber journey toward the West Coast is all too real, and will require a monumental cleanup effort to avoid an even greater environmental catastrophe. But I beg you to consider -- just for a moment -- the victims of this horrific natural disaster. Don't blame them for the garbage or the stream of junk coming our way. They didn't litter our beaches, or intentionally dump debris or discharge waste into the ocean.

If you must place blame, blame Mother Nature for her violent tantrum that sent these bits and pieces of people's lives drifting our way. As the tsunami debris approaches, ask yourself: How many bits and pieces are there to your life? How many bits and pieces make up your family? How many bits and pieces hold your neighborhood, your community, your city together?

The tsunami debris did not come from the infamous Pacific Gyre and should not be confused with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It is quite profoundly the remnants of a human tragedy, slowly drifting toward us in silence, just as silent as its youngest, most innocent victims, who perished that day.

To love the sea is to know the sea is to respect the sea, and until the sea gives up these bits and pieces of people's lives by returning them to shore, there can be no closure.

I hope upon reflection, all will agree that these bits and pieces of people's lives deserve a moment of solemnness, dignity, and symbolic closure as the first wave of identifiable tsunami debris begins washing up on our shores -- the people of Japan want to know what we find.

To the blue community: ocean conservation advocates; marine life protectors; plastic pollution revolutionaries; and environmentalists -- you who are all so passionate and committed to caring for and protecting our oceans and ridding our shores of such litter -- will you channel that environmental passion into an act of humanitarian compassion, to help bring closure for the people of Japan, before we set out on the daunting task to clean up the bits and pieces of their families and friends lives from our shores?

The response so far gives me optimism for the future of our planet as we begin the New Year. From the international influence of Celine Cousteau and her Ocean Inspiration organization in New York, to the tireless staff and volunteers of the small, but mighty, Save Our Shores in Santa Cruz, California; ocean conservation advocates both near and far are engaging in this discussion of humanity, culture and the environment.

Earth is, after all, a small planet and we are all on it together. We need to share not only in the bounty of its natural resources, but also in the burden of its natural disasters.

This post originally appeared on Santa Cruz Patch.

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