Japan's devastating earthquake and resulting tsunami in 2011 washed some 5 million tons of debris into the ocean. While much of the debris sank or broke down in the ocean, a significant amount swept across the waves and began arriving on U.S. shores in 2012, and it hasn't stopped washing up since.

The debris has become a regular sight on the beaches of Alaska and down the west coast of North America. It is hard to understand the scale of the problem, the sheer amount of debris arriving on shore -- unless, of course, you have volunteers collecting it, bagging it, and loading it onto a massive barge for removal.

On August 4th, Cristina Mittermeier, conservation photographer and co-founder of nonprofit Sea Legacy, photographed a barge loaded up with 3,334 "super sacks" each the size of a Smart Car, arriving in Ucluelet, British Columbia en route to Seattle, Washington.

"This month, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, along with several government agencies, non-profit organizations, and business partners in Alaska and British Columbia have endeavoured an unprecedented effort - funded in large part by a generous donation from the Government of Japan - to remove marine debris from beaches in Alaska and British Columbia," says Karla Robison, Environmental and Emergency Services Manager of the District of Ucluelet in a press release. "Using helicopters with sling load capabilities and a 300-foot barge, this operation will take approximately one month to deliver several hundred tons of debris to Seattle, Washington for recycling, with remaining debris sent by train to a final disposal site in Oregon."


The barge is making its way to Seattle, Washington where the debris will be recycled. The barge is making its way to Seattle, Washington where the debris will be recycled. All non-recyclables will continue by train to Oregon for final disposal. (Photo: Cristina Mittermeier/Sea Legacy)

Helecopters were used to help shift the super sacks. Helecopters were used to help shift the super sacks. (Photo: Cristina Mittermeier/Sea Legacy)

A worker in safety gear adds a sense of scale to the super sacks and the amount of debris collected. A worker in safety gear adds a sense of scale to the super sacks and the amount of debris collected. (Photo: Cristina Mittermeier/Sea Legacy)

This barge's load represents just a fraction of what has washed up and will wash up along the coastline. This barge's load represents just a fraction of what has washed up and will wash up along the coastline. (Photo: Cristina Mittermeier/Sea Legacy)

The barge pictured here is carrying both the thousands of super sacks as well as 691 cubic yards of assorted debris. All of which will now be put in its proper place, rather than cluttering up the coastlines of Alaska and British Columbia. The effort is enormous but also entirely worth it. Marine debris is not only an eyesore and dangerous to beach-goers, but it is also a significant danger to marine life. Sea otters, sea lions, seals, birds, fish and other animals get tangled in ropes or chunks of plastic, and often mistake smaller pieces as food. The consequences are lethal. The debris can also hinder shipping traffic or damage reefs. The clean-up crews are performing a feat of heroic scale, and it is still just a portion of what needs to be collected along North America's coasts.

“The relations and co-operation between Japan, Alaska, Canada, British Columbia and coastal communities in response to the disaster and resulting debris signify that by working collectively we can protect our shared marine environment," says Robison.

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Jaymi Heimbuch ( @jaymiheimbuch ) focuses on wildlife conservation and animal news from her home base in San Francisco.