It’s an event researchers say has “no known historical precedent” and it is still unfolding.
In the six years since a massive tsunami struck Japan, at least 289 species of animals have travelled to the US on huge rafts of pollution.
Thousands of non-native marine crustaceans, fish, molluscs and anemones continue to land on the US west coast on rafts of plastic, fibreglass and other debris that was washed out to sea in 2011.
According to a paper describing the phenomenon, published today in the journal Science, as many as 65 per cent of the species are not native to US waters.
Study co-author Professor Jim Carlton from Williams College in Massachusetts fears if any are able to colonise, there could be devastating consequences.
“The immediate concerns are the potential economic and environmental impacts of any given invasion, like the North Pacific sea star in Australia,” he said.
Objects ranging from barges and fishing vessels to plastic bags and buoys were washed out to sea in a “massive debris field” during the 2011 tsunami.
This deluge of flotsam was then sucked into the Pacific trash vortex — a gyre of circulating marine rubbish that brushes the coast of Japan and circulates clockwise around the North Pacific Ocean.
Each spring, as offshore currents pushing off the US coast ease, “spring pulses” of trash wash ashore on the west coast.
The scientists say it is unclear yet whether any animals arriving on the rafts have been able to successfully colonise.
“We are in the establishment window. The lag time between their arriving and becoming established and detected can be a while,” Professor Carlton said.
The paper’s authors make the case that massive coastal development and climate change are converging to completely reshape the way species are dispersed around the globe.
“If we advance the climate change models that argue that hurricanes and typhoons and other storms will be increasing in frequency and size, then we enter an era in the 21st century where larger and more frequent storms are for the first time interfacing with the densest populations and infrastructure that we’ve ever had on [our] coastlines,” Professor Carlton said.
Professor Steven Chown from Monash University says the research will, “change our view of the world”.
“Their research is amazing in actually documenting this pulse event, and then demonstrating that we might have to expect more such large-scale events given the huge increase in infrastructure globally along with, of course, increasingly extreme weather events,” he said.
Text: Nick Kalvert, Tsunami ‘mega-rafts’ of debris ship hundreds of animal species from Japan to US, ABC News