NORMAN — 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.
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.”
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 in full swing 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. For nearly a century before then, ships sailing up the coast carried barnacles and seaweeds.
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.