Nearly three years have passed since the deadly 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the resulting Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster, yet fears of radiation contamination on the North Coast have not dissipated.
Mark McCulloch of Mr. Fish Seafood in Eureka said he still gets inquiries about his seafood being contaminated with radiation “several times a week.”
”I think a lot of that is coming from the Internet,” McCulloch said. “It's unfounded, mostly speculation.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration addressed the concerns of radiation in food supplies in September with a release stating that they have found “no evidence that radionuclides from the Fukushima incident are present in the U.S. food supply at levels that would pose a public health concern.”
”This is true for both FDA-regulated food products imported from Japan and U.S. domestic food products, including seafood caught off the coast of the United States,” the statement read.
Meat clerk Ananda Wolfe of the North Coast Co-op in Eureka said that the topic is brought up “infrequently” at their location.
”A lot of people are concerned inquisitively, not accusationally,” Wolfe said.
Fears of contamination arose after the Tohoku earthquake and its resulting tsunami struck Japan on March 11, 2011. The natural disaster and the aftermath took the lives of nearly 16,000 people.
The California Department of Public health released a statement last week, which said that there “is no public health risk at California beaches due to radioactivity related to events at Fukushima.”
”The (department) is not aware of any recent activity at Fukushima, or any new data that would cause elevated radioactivity on California shores from the Fukushima incident,” the statement read.
In an effort to determine how radioactive contamination affects kelp forests off the California coastline, California State University Long Beach biology professor Steven Manley and Kai Vetter, the head of the Applied Nuclear Physics lab at the University of California Berkeley, are launching the “Kelp Watch 2014” research campaign.
Among the 19 academic and government institutions participating in the study is Humboldt State University marine botany professor Frank Shaughnessy.
”There aren't too many monitoring programs that take a snapshot over such a large part of the coast,” Shaughnessy said. “It's a good opportunity for public education.”
Shaughnessy said he hopes the information generated from the statewide study will clear up some of the confusion concerning Fukushima radiation.
”There's a lot of misinformation about Fukushima out there that's scaring people,” Shaughnessy said. “People need to be a little more patient and wait for the results to come out. I'm hoping this study will calm them down a bit.”
During the study, participants will acquire permits to extract and prepare samples of either giant kelp or bull kelp from designated locations along the shoreline and send them to a centralized location for analysis.
”The study is involving the collection of kelps because they concentrate heavy metals and radioactive elements,” Shaughnessy said. “They happen to be good seaweed to use.”
Shaughnessy said he and his graduate students will be extracting samples of bull kelp from Trinidad Bay, though he hopes to take more from the shores off of Crescent City and Fort Bragg.
A few months after the Fukushima disaster, emeritus physical science professor Richard Stepp at Humboldt State decided to calculate whether the airborne radiation would still be at threatening concentrations once it reached the West Coast. Stepp decided to use a worst case scenario for the calculation.
”In my calculation, I took the amount of airborne radiation around the plant in the days after the meltdown then allowed that to blow in a direct line to us,” said. “We are a long way from Fukushima.”
His results showed that after the radiation traveled the nearly 5,500-mile journey to the North Coast, the remaining concentration after dilution would only be a fraction of the radiation the North Coast is exposed to on a daily basis.
”It turned out to be a two-hundredth of the background radiation of this area,” Stepp said. “You might be able to measure it, but it's not a big deal.”
Stepp said that the calculations were made in units of sieverts, which measure the concentration of ionizing radiation absorbed by a biological mass.
”If you wanted to even reach background radiation, you'd have to have hundreds of times more radiation being released today than there was when the disaster first took place in 2011,” Stepp said. “That seems very unlikely.”
Radiation was not the only thing strewn into the Pacific Ocean after the tsunami. The Japanese government estimated that about 5 million tons of debris entered the Pacific Ocean after the tsunami, with about 70 percent sinking soon after. The remaining 30 percent has been slowly drifting eastward on North Pacific currents.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, along with several partners, have been monitoring the movement of this marine debris as it arrives on the West Coast. Administration spokeswoman Keeley Belva said that debris has been washing up on U.S. shores, and will continue to do so for years to come.
”Places that normally get marine debris are places that will more likely have marine debris from the tsunami,” Belva said. “It's really hard to tell when and where debris is going to come ashore.”
Belva said that marine debris -- whether it originated from the tsunami or not -- can cause many harmful consequences to marine ecosystems.
”Larger objects, like fishing boats, can damage habitats; nets can wrap around marine mammals,” Belva said. “There is a concern of invasive species, as some of the larger debris that was in the water already when the tsunami hit had organisms attached them.”
As to whether Fukushima radiation has contaminated the debris, Belva said that tests show “none of the debris has had abnormal levels of radiation.”
Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Will_S_Houston