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Possible 'Tsunami Debris' Boat on Oregon Coast Presents Mysteries

Published 04/22/21 at 5:35 AM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Possible 'Tsunami Debris' Boat on Oregon Coast Presents Mysteries

(Waldport, Oregon) – A month after being discovered on a central Oregon coast beach, a wayward boat is still presenting some mysteries. Was it tsunami debris that showed up ten years later? Does it contain something dangerous to our ecosystem? (Photos courtesy CoastWatch volunteer JLcoasties).

Space debris isn’t the only thing that washed up in the Waldport area in recent weeks. On March 20, a “panga” boat (a type of small fishing vessel) made its way to just north of the Bayshore area of town, covered in various kinds of sea life. It was quickly called in to authorities, deemed a possible “tsunami boat” from Japan, which meant the sea life on it could well pose some dangers to Oregon’s coastal ecosystem.

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The fiberglass panga vessel was 22 feet long and of a type often used in Japan for fishing. About 2012, a year or so after the 2011 tsunami in Japan, various debris started showing up on the Oregon coast. Many of them were covered in marine life, and some were considered invasive species that could cause harm on this coastline by spreading unchallenged by any predator. Luckily, no invasion ever occurred.

Responding to the scene in Waldport were personnel from Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD) and Steve Rumrill from the Newport office of Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW). They showed up March 20 and 21, with Rumrill heading out immediately upon receiving the report. He examined the boat for any invasive species.

“I was concerned that the high tides at night on Sunday and before dawn may wash the vessel back out to sea,” Rumrill said. “So I secured a long polypro line to the stern of the vessel and stretched the line up the beach where I tied it to a large drift log and buried the drift log in the sand. My anchor system remained intact, and the vessel remained anchored in the surf zone until Tuesday, March 23, when it was removed by the contractor hired by OPRD.”

The contractor dragged it northward on the beach to an access where it could be hauled up onto a vehicle, then taken to South Beach State Park for examination.

Rumrill said it looked similar to other such panga vessels that washed up in Oregon during those years. The largest was the “tsunami dock” that arrived in Newport in 2012 and had officials very worried.

“So when I first saw the new ‘Panga’ on Mar 21, 2021, I thought that it was remarkable that another of the vessels from Japan had washed up on an Oregon beach after the tsunami event 10 years earlier,” he said.

Then came the mysteries.

Courtesy CoastWatch volunteer JLcoasties: before the boat was flipped over

First, it may not be from Japan, or maybe it hasn’t been floating around that long. Rumrill said it was in remarkably good shape if it had been exposed to ocean conditions for ten years.

“The exposed fiberglass on the hull was not heavily oxidized, and the stainless-steel motor lift mount was very clean and appeared to be relatively new,” he said.

Rumrill already knew there was a small fleet of “Panga” vessels used off the coast of California.

“So it occurred to me that it may be possible that the new vessel had been in the ocean for only a couple of years and that it had drifted north to Oregon from Baja, rather than from Japan,” he said. “This is a mystery that would require further evidence to determine its origin.”

Samples of the marine organisms were collected while it was still on the beach and then later at South Beach. Rumrill discovered one large pink-shelled barnacle by itself which he tentatively identified as Megabalanus. This one might be a problem, and it further deepened the mystery.

“Megabalanus is not native to the Oregon coast, and there are several species,” he said. “One species (Megabalanus rosa) is native to the waters of Japan, South Korea, and China, while another species (Megabalanus californicus) is native to southern California and Mexico.

Further examination still needs to be done on this one, but Rumrill said it looked more like the species from the Far East.

Other species will be looked into further as well.

It’s all a bit reminiscent of that tsunami dock for Rumrill, although hopefully not as serious since the boat is not that big.

“That dock was inhabited by a great diversity and biomass of living non-native marine organisms, including seaweeds, mussels, snails, sea stars, crab, barnacles, fish, and other groups,” he said. “We learned very quickly that there was a distinct possibility that these vessels and drifting debris had the potential to transport living marine organisms from the waters of Japan to the coast of Oregon where we were concerned that the non-native species could become established.” MORE PHOTOS BELOW

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Courtesy CoastWatch volunteer JLcoasties: marine life that came from the panga boat

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