Concern for shipping traffic as tsunami ship drifts towards US

A derelict Japanese fishing vessel, dislodged by last year’s massive tsunami, is close to hitting Alaska.

The US Coast Guard today confirmed that the shrimping vessel was floating slowly north west in the Gulf of Alaska about 125 miles west of the nearest point of land - Forrester Island outside the Dixon Entrance, a maritime transportation corridor separating US and Canada jurisdictions.

The ship is heading in the direction of the south east Alaska town of Sitka 170 miles to the north, travelling at about one mile per hour, Coast Guard spokesman David Mosley said.

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There are no immediate concerns regarding the community of about 9,000, however. Mr Mosley said the town is just a reference point at this time and that currents could always change.

“Our main concern is maritime traffic,” he said. “We’re trying to minimise any safety concerns, alerting vessels. We don’t want any vessels to run into it.”

A Coast Guard C-130 was heading to the ship to pinpoint the exact location and check if a data buoy was successfully dropped on it on Saturday.

The vessel has been adrift since it was launched by the tsunami caused by the magnitude-9.0 earthquake that struck Japan last year. About five million tons of debris were swept into the ocean by the tsunami.

The ship has been identified as coming from Hokkaido, Japan.

Beside boat traffic, another concern is the ship’s impact on the maritime environment after floating at sea more than a year. What’s on board is unknown. Also unknown is whether the ship is carrying fuel.

The vessel, named Ryou-Un Maru, is believed to be 150 to 200 feet long, according to Mr Mosley.

Officials are studying various options on how to deal with the ship, including scuttling it at sea or towing it to land.

The Japan earthquake triggered the world’s worst nuclear crisis since the Chernobyl accident in 1986, but Alaska state health and environmental officials have said there’s little need to be worried that debris landing on Alaska shores will be contaminated by radiation.

They have been working with federal counterparts to gauge the danger of debris including material affected by a damaged nuclear power plant, to see if Alaska residents, seafood or wild game could be affected.

In January, a half dozen large buoys suspected to be from Japanese oyster farms appeared at the top of Alaska’s panhandle and may be among the first debris from the tsunami.