Coastal Overflights Finding Styrofoam On Beaches

A comprehensive survey of the outer coastline got underway before the expected bulk of tsunami debris arrives in Alaska waters. But observers have already spotted items pushed by North Pacific winds coming ashore, and some of that debris may be unhealthy if consumed by coastal wildlife.

“We’re seeing a lot of foam. We’re seeing a lot of these buoys,” said Wasilla-based pilot Tim Veenstra as he described recent flights along the Southcentral coast. He also reports also spotting sections of what appears of building walls with urathane foam sprayed inside.

As head of Airborne Technologies Incorporated, he flies an amphibious Cessna 185 that skims as low as 700 feet off the beach while dodging poor weather and sensitive wildlife areas.

“We’ve got the pilot upfront and the camera operator in the back that is running the equipement,”said Veenstra.

“Everything is all tied together with GPS. It’s all digitial imagery.” High-definition video and high-resolution still cameras are mounted in the belly of the aircraft.

“If there’s a piece of foam that’s about the size of golf ball, we can typically define that as ‘Yes, that is definitely a piece of foam.’”

Veenstra is on a state contract to fly and photograph as much as 3,000 miles of outer coastline from Cape Muzon in the southeast out to Cold Bay in the west. It’s for a baseline study before the first big wave of tsunami debris washes up on Alaska beaches. The black polyurethane oyster buoys, large styrofoam floats, and other foam pieces seen on Alaska beaches are likely wind-driven, arriving earlier than submerged or current-driven objects.

Veenstra is very careful to avoid positively identifying any of the debris as originating during last year’s tsunami. That will require collection and examination by people on the beach.

For example, he overflew two sites that had some odd, concentrated collections of debris. They include black flyswatters with a white sports logo and what appeared to be basketballs which were the size of Nerf balls. Later, Veenstra said that they discovered those were the contents of containers that washed overboard from a freighter in the North Pacific.

Veenstra’s contract with the state Department of Environmental Conversation is the first recent aerial survey of Alaska beaches, but not the first survey overall.

The Marine Conservation Alliance Foundation recently issued a report on contractors patrolling Kodiak, Yakutat, Sitka, and Craig beaches last winter. Alaska scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have been walking Southeast and Prince William Sound beaches this summer.

Elaine Busse Floyd is the acting director of DEC’s Division of Environmental Health. She says the state is paying nearly $200,000 for the aerial survey. A potential grant from NOAA will likely go to actual clean-up.

“Our plan with that money is to contract it out in the marine debris community so the money is used for boots or boats on the ground to actually remove the tsunami debris,” said Floyd.

But that NOAA grant is only $50,000.

“And that’s a start,” said Dave Gaudet, marine debris program coordinator for the Marine Conservation Alliance Foundation. He believes that cleaning up many of the beaches on the outer coast will be a challenge.

“Using volunteers is probably not really an option,” said Gaudet. “Even with volunteers, getting them out there is going to be expensive.”

“It’s either by helicopter or on the rare days when you can actually get a boat ashore in the surf,” said Gaudet.

A proposal to fund the federal Marine Debris Program with at least $5 million per year appears stalled in Congress.

Meanwhile, the Parnell Administration just set up a webpage devoted to tsunami debris. It serves as a clearinghouse of information and contacts for reporting debris or helping with the potential clean-up, including the corresponding State agency for every potential issue.

As an example, consider some of the impacts on wildlife. Much of that Styrofoam will be nearly impossible to clean-up after it is broken up by wind and wave action. Floyd says they’re worried about marine mammals and birds ingesting it.

“It can block their gastrointestinal tract,” said Floyd. “The animal or bird would die from malnutrition. Or they could choke on it.”

Veenstra hopes to wrap up his flying surveys by the end of August with an analysis completed in October.

“We’re going to find hotspots, and we’ve already identifed a number of beaches that are heavily debrised,” said Veenstra. But he said a baseline survey is still important to compare to debris levels next year and the year after.

Floyd says they expect to quickly share that data with other state agencies, NOAA, and various stakeholders.

The state’s tsunami debris website is

Or, you can go to the DEC homepage at and scroll down to the very bottom until you see the picture of the yellow float and red and white container.

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Matt Miller is a reporter at KTOO in Juneau.