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Invasive species ride tsunami debris to US shore

A floating dock from Japan washed up on an Oregon beach this week. Scientists worry that it represents a new way for invasive species to muck up the West Coast's marine environments.

By Jeff BarnardAssociated Press / June 9, 2012

Volunteers remove marine organisms from a Japanese dock that came ashore on Agate Beach, one mile north of Newport, Oregon.

Oregon Parks and Recreation Department/Reuters

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When a floating dock the size of a boxcar washed up on a sandy beach in Oregon, beachcombers got excited because it was the largest piece of debris from last year's tsunami in Japan to show up on the West Coast.

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But scientists worried it represented a whole new way for invasive species of seaweed, crabs and other marine organisms to break the earth's natural barriers and further muck up the West Coast's marine environments. And more invasive species could be hitching rides on tsunami debris expected to arrive in the weeks and months to come.

"We know extinctions occur with invasions," said John Chapman, assistant professor of fisheries and invasive species specialist at Oregon State University's Hatfield Marine Science Center. "This is like arrows shot into the dark. Some of them could hit a mark."

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Though the global economy has accelerated the process in recent decades by the sheer volume of ships, most from Asia, entering West Coast ports, the marine invasion has been going on since 1869, when the transcontinental railroad brought the first shipment of East Coast oysters packed in seaweed and mud to San Francisco, said Andrew Cohen, director of the Center for Research on Aquatic Bioinvasions in Richmond, Calif.

Now, hotspots like San Francisco Bay amount to a "global zoo" of invasive species and perhaps 500 plants and animals from foreign shores have established in U.S. marine waters, said James Carlton, professor of marine sciences at Williams College. They come mostly from ship hulls and the water ships take on as ballast, but also get dumped into bays from home aquariums.

The costs quickly mount into the untold billions of dollars. Mitten crabs from China eat baby Dungeness crabs that are one of the region's top commercial fisheries. Spartina, a ropey seaweed from Europe, chokes commercial oyster beds. Shellfish plug the cooling water intakes of power plants. Kelps and tiny shrimp-like creatures change the food web that fish, marine mammals and even humans depend on.

A 2004 study in the scientific journal Ecological Economics estimated 400 threatened and endangered species in the U.S. are facing extinction because of pressures from invasive species.

It is too early for scientists to know how much Japanese tsunami debris may add to the invasive species already here.

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