Murray Leslie

Tracking tsunami debris in the hands of citizens

Masses of debris from Japan expected to hit West Coast over Christmas

A wooden box stamped with Japanese characters sits hidden beneath a pile of seaweed and a sizeable chunk of kelp near the waters of Telegraph Cove – an image of what is expected to hit West Coast beaches this December.

This prop didn’t actually float over from Japan following the devastating earthquake from March, 2011. But if it did, Murray Leslie, a member of Ocean Networks Canada’s software development team, would be doing the right thing, as he kneels down on the beach and snaps a photo with his smartphone.

Logged into Coastbuster, an app designed to get the public reporting marine debris, Leslie captures an image of the box and with a few strokes across the phone’s touchscreen, categorizes his finding, simply answering what he has found and whether or not it appears hazardous.

“Pretend we’re on the West Coast and there’s nothing but wild ocean out there,” Leslie says at the Cadboro Bay beach in Saanich. “Stuff can just wash in here and it’s very difficult for it to wash out again. They expect debris like this to accumulate for at least the next two or three years.”

To catalogue actual debris, Leslie would wait until he got back on a Wi-Fi network and upload his curious photo to Ocean Networks Canada via Coastbuster.

Ocean Networks vets all such images then sends them along to authorities from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the Ministry of Environment, and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The lab uploads also the photos to the Coastbuster Flickr account, where anyone can browse, share and comment on the findings.

“It’s important that (debris) gets recorded and the people who will be able to do that are the ones who live or work in the area, the people who are actually out walking the beach on a daily basis and able to say, ‘Hey, that wasn’t here yesterday,”’ Leslie says.

Residents on the West Coast, from Washington to Alaska are about to start seeing a lot of debris that wasn’t there yesterday. The bulk is projected to be a mere few hundred kilometres from the coastline, and expected within a matter of weeks with the normal circulation of the ocean. Winter storms could see that debris – more than a million tons – wash up anytime between now and Christmas.

Winds have already pushed lighter objects floating closer to the surface of the ocean to our shores, says Kate Moran, president and CEO of Ocean Networks Canada. Oceanographers are now expecting denser objects below the surface and floating too deep for satellite recognition, she says.

“If (an object) is large enough and we can get good dimensions on it, it might help scientists understand the ocean currents better, because it has a certain density and they can calculate the depth at which it was floating,” Moran says.

Uses for the app, developed through a partnership with Simon Fraser University’s spatial interface research lab, could also be applied to a range of tracking initiatives.

“Say there’s some kind of impact on coastal fauna, like oyster beds, or muscles, or clams – we could actually have a campaign and people could document where they are and where they’re not.

“It could be applied for other things: surfers could use it to document where the best waves are,” Moran adds with a laugh. “It’s for people to suggest and we’re open to promoting other campaigns if there’s a need.”

Last June, Cara Lachmuth, volunteer co-ordinator for the Vancouver Island chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, a coastal preservation group, led a group of 16 during an annual clean up of Vargas Island north of Tofino. The group picked up one whole ton of debris in a single day on Vargas Island – a hefty load given their requirement to log all of their findings and submit an annual report to NOAA.

“That’s fairly intensive work, to take an entire year of data and write a report,” Lachmuth says “To have an app available, so we can submit it all instantaneously with pictures is amazing. We’re volunteers and anything that lets us get more done, we’re all for.”

The free Coastbuster app is currently available on Android smartphones and tablets. The iPhone/iPad apps are awaiting approval from Apple in the coming weeks. Check out information on the project at

“It was designed to be used even by a kayaker, someone who only has one free hand,” Leslie says “You can become a citizen scientist.”


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