Sea critters hitchhiked across the Pacific on tsunami debris
Sea critters hitchhiked across the Pacific on tsunami debris This June 2012 photo provided by John W. Chapman shows Japanese sea stars (Asterias amurensis) on a Misawa, Japan fisheries dock which washed ashore near Newport, Ore. (John W. Chapman via AP)
Sea critters hitchhiked across the Pacific on tsunami debris
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Nearly 300 species of fish, mussels and other sea critters hitchhiked across the Pacific Ocean. They traveled on debris from the 2011 Japanese tsunami. They washed ashore alive in the United States. That's what researchers reported Thursday.

It is the largest and longest marine migration ever documented. That's according to outside experts and the researchers. The scientists and colleagues combed the beaches of Washington. They combed the beaches of Oregon, California and British Columbia. They combed the beaches of Alaska and Hawaii. They tracked the species to their Japanese origins. Their arrival could be a problem if the critters take root. They could push out native species. That's what the study authors said in Thursday's journal Science.

"It's a bit of what we call ecological roulette," said lead author James Carlton. He's a marine sciences professor at Williams College. It is in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

It will be years before scientists know if the 289 Japanese species thrive in their new home and crowd out natives. The researchers roughly estimated that a million creatures traveled 4,800 miles across the Pacific Ocean. 

Invasive species are a major problem worldwide. It’s when plants and animals thrive in areas where they don't naturally live. Marine invasions in the past have hurt native farmed shellfish. They also eroded the local ecosystem and caused economic losses. They can also spread disease-carrying species. 

A magnitude 9 earthquake off the coast of Japan triggered a tsunami on March 11, 2011. It swept boats and docks into the Pacific. It also swept buoys and other man-made materials into the Pacific. The debris drifted east with an armada of living creatures. Some gave birth to new generations while at sea.

"The diversity was somewhat jaw-dropping," Carlton said. "Mollusks, sea anemones, corals, crabs, just a wide variety of species, really a cross-section of Japanese fauna."

The researchers collected and analyzed the debris that reached the West Coast and Hawaii over the last five years. New pieces arrived Wednesday in Washington. The debris flowed across the North Pacific current. It moved north with the Alaska current or south with the California current. Most hit Oregon and Washington.

Last year, a small boat from Japan reached Oregon. It held 20 good-sized fish inside. It included a kind of yellowtail jack native to the western Pacific. Some of the fish are still alive in an Oregon aquarium. Earlier, an entire fishing ship arrived intact with five of the same 6-inch fish swimming around inside.

Co-author Gregory Ruiz is a Smithsonian marine ecologist. He is especially interested in a Japanese parasite in the gills of mussels. Elsewhere in the world, these parasites have taken root. They have hurt oyster and mussel harvests and hadn't been seen before on the West Coast.

The researchers note another huge factor in this flotilla: plastics.

Decades ago, most of the debris would have been wood and that would have degraded over the long ocean trip. Now most of the debris - buoys, boats, crates and pallets - are made of plastic and that survives, Carlton said. And so the hitchhikers survive, too.

"It was the plastic debris that allowed new species to survive far longer than we ever thought they would," Carlton said.

James Byers is a marine ecologist at the University of Georgia in Athens. He wasn't part of the study. But he praised the authors for their detective work. He said in an email that the migration was an odd mix of a natural trigger and human aspects because of the plastics.

"The fact that communities of organisms survived out in the open ocean for long time periods (years in some cases) is amazing," he wrote.

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Why is this considered “hitchhiking?"
Write your answers in the comments section below

  • SofiaT-del
    10/04/2017 - 10:17 p.m.

    This is considered hitch hiking because the critters travel alongside with the debris.I believe it is extraordinarily odd how diverse species of sea critters had traveled across the pacific. However, I find it disappointing at the ammount of debris that has been enmeshed in the pacific waters. Over all, I believe it is amazing how these creatures coupd survive over plastic.

  • AlejandraC-del
    10/04/2017 - 10:21 p.m.

    This is considered "hitchhiking" because of the different places throughout the pacific that different species were found.-
    "The scientists and colleagues combed the beaches of Washington. They combed the beaches of Oregon, California and British Columbia. They combed the beaches of Alaska and Hawaii. They tracked the species to their Japanese origins."

  • AngelinaB-del
    10/04/2017 - 10:36 p.m.

    This article helped me understand the problem we have in our polluted ocean. It also helps me understand how unusual it is for millions of fish to arrive from the other side of the world. This is considered "hitchhiking" because the fish traveling in the debris "catch a ride" with some of the debris.

  • EoinM-del
    10/04/2017 - 10:43 p.m.

    It is crazy how natural disaster don't only affect our homes. Think about all the plant life that were separated. Especially how far away they were.

  • PoojaT-del
    10/04/2017 - 11:49 p.m.

    I think hitchhiking is considered wrong. I think hitchhiking means to go with someone somewhere, without their permission. Other sea critters hitchhiked across the Pacific Ocean. I did not find this article interesting because for me, there was nothing exciting to learn.

  • JohnB-del1
    10/05/2017 - 11:00 a.m.

    It shows how the fish are like hitch hikers. It shows that fish are thanking advantage of each other.

  • ChloeR-del1
    10/05/2017 - 04:27 p.m.

    This is technically considered "hitchhiking" because hitchhiking means free ride or passageway. This goes for these sea critters because they traveled from the debris from the Japanese tsunami in 2011. This was one of the largest migration ever documented.

  • CherM-del
    10/05/2017 - 05:50 p.m.

    Pollution has a big effect on the ecosystem and its animals that could affect the food web and our natural environment. One way you can help is to volunteer to help get rid of pollution and be more eco friendly

  • JosephF-del
    10/05/2017 - 07:04 p.m.

    This is considered hitchhiking because the creatures traveled among trash and landed up in another area. The definition of hitchhiking is to travel with someone you don't know and just follow them. That is exactly what they do.

  • Cynthiat-orv
    10/06/2017 - 12:29 p.m.

    That's why i hate Tsunami's they hurt people and animals. I also hate them for the fact that there scary.

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