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Fish hitchhike 4000 miles from Japan to US

30 September 2017

A surf ski paddler (L) encounters part of a pod of dolphins surfing on a wave at Manly Beach in Sydney June 5, 2005.

The towering tsunami, triggered by a 9.0 magnitude natural disaster on the afternoon of 11 March 2011, generated five million tonnes of debris from the three prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima.

"I didn't think that most of these coastal organisms could survive at sea for long periods of time", said Greg Ruiz, a co-author and marine biologist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. Since many species were just recorded on one piece of debris, however, the authors estimate that the real number of species that hitched a ride across the Pacific is much higher.

The team believes they may have found just a fraction of the species that actually washed ashore along the USA, since many pieces of debris were cleared away before any analysis or census began. How many invasive species? 289! They were swept all the way from Japan after the 2011 tsunami.

So far, the scientists have found no evidence of Japanese species establishing themselves on the West Coast, although it is a process that can take many years.

The almost 300 invasive species identified included mollusks (which were most commonly found out of all the invertebrate groups), fish, barnacles, sea slugs, crabs, clams and sponges, among others.

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The open ocean is known to have a harsh environment which prevents the coastal marine creatures from surviving the transoceanic voyage. The non-decomposing nature of the plastic has also made a safe haven for the organisms to survive and reproduce in them elsewhere.

The steady stream of trash is revealing just how far and long organisms can travel on these so-called "rafts".

What has astounded researchers is how the marine creatures survived for so many years on these "ocean rafts". The first species were identified in 2012, and although findings have become more infrequent, the researchers reported finding species clinging to debris in 2017.

"When we first saw species from Japan arriving in OR, we were shocked".

A 2015 report in Science warned that over 10 million tons of plastic waste enter the ocean each year, and that figure may increase 10 times by 2025. The natural calamities like hurricanes and typhoons add to the debris formed.

Scientists have been discovering organisms stuck to these objects - from crates to plastic cups - on the shores of the USA ever since.

Fish hitchhike 4000 miles from Japan to US