Large, black, oval floats like this one have not been observed in any of the prior NOAA marine debris surveys. Scientists found 27 of the black buoys on their recent survey of Southeast shorelines. Jacek Maselko

NOAA scientists have completed the Southeast phase of a survey effort, looking for marine debris along Alaska’s coast, including possible debris from last year’s Japanese tsunami.

The science team left Ketchikan on June 15th. Over ten days, they recorded debris at 36 sites on nine different islands.

The most prevalent debris was Styrofoam fragments and plastic, single-use water bottles.

Jeep Rice of NOAA’s Auke Bay Lab said the survey project started about 40 years ago, with surveys every five years or so.

“As it turns out, we did some of these beaches last year, so when the tsunami debris started coming ashore, it seemed appropriate to have a reassessment.,” he said.

Rice said debris from the tsunami likely will peak in about a year, but some has started drifting ashore now. He said Japanese debris has been found before, but it’s unclear whether it was from Japan or from Japanese vessels sailing closer to Alaska.

In recent months, many large floats have been reported in Washington, Oregon and Alaska. Rice said the science team found similar buoys during the recent survey.

“The one thing we are seeing that’s new, for the very first time, this year is we’re seeing these large black oval buoys,” he said.

Rice said the buoys appear to be from fish farms, and are very buoyant. He said that could be why they arrived first, because wind as well as currents would have brought them here faster than other debris.

No debris was confirmed as from the Japan tsunami, but the team did collect a volleyball with handwriting on it. NOAA is working with Japanese officials to determine whether the ball is tsunami-related.

“Well, it is Japanese writing and of course we can’t read it, so we don’t know really what it says, but there’s a good possibility that it is tsunami debris, but we can’t really confirm or deny that,” he said.

Rice said it’s unlikely for any tsunami debris to carry radioactivity, considering the length of time and the repeated washing by the ocean. He said the survey crew was looking for other dangerous material, such as gas or oil containers.

Rice said the survey crew members won’t clean up debris, because there’s too much of it out there, but if dangerous items are found, they will alert the U.S. Coast Guard.

Rice said more expeditions are planned further north and west.

“Sometime toward the end of the summer, when we’re done, we’ll probably have a better picture of whether this is a big deal or not a big deal,” he said.