Best of our wild blogs: 29 Feb 12

Ovipositing Wasps
from Macro Photography in Singapore

Job: Lab Tech @ Duke-NUS, Mar 2012 – Feb 2013: bats, birds, small mammals
from The Biodiversity crew @ NUS

Job: 1-year, Full-time Research Assistant opportunity, coral and sediment analysis
from The Biodiversity crew @ NUS

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Singapore road length rises 1.7% in 2011

Rise was due to handover of roads from other agencies, private developers
Samuel Ee Business Times 29 Feb 12;

SINGAPORE's road lane-kilometres increased 151 lane-km last year to 9,046 lane-km, or up 1.7 per cent from 8,895 lane-km as at end 2010, as total road length climbed 35 km or one per cent.

According to Land Transport Authority statistics, the increase was mainly due to handover of roads from other agencies and private developers to the authority.

'There was an increase from 2010 to 2011 as some new roads are now being maintained by LTA,' said an LTA spokeswoman. 'These roads were previously taken care of by agencies such as JTC, HDB or by private developers.'

She said that one example is the road network that JTC handed over from their new industrial park development in Tuas South in 2011.

Total road length is calculated by adding up expressways, arterial roads, collector roads and local access roads.

In 2011, it was mainly arterial roads and collector roads which contributed to the 1.7 per cent increase.

While the expansion last year may sound small, it was still significantly higher than in 2010, when total road length had risen 48 lane-km from 2009's 8,847 lane-km, or a mere 0.5 per cent (see table).

But the 2011 hike is likely to be a one-off increase although the LTA spokeswoman said it is difficult to forecast how many roads exactly will be handed over to the authority in future.

The climb in 2011's total road length comes at a time when vehicle population growth is set to be reduced further in a few months' time. From August 2012, the vehicle growth rate will be cut to 0.5 per cent from the current 1.5 per cent.

The 1.5 per cent rate itself was cut from 3 per cent three years ago after then transport minister Raymond Lim explained in his land transport review in January 2008 that the '3 per cent growth rate is not sustainable with a base of 850,000 vehicles, and with road growth at 0.5 per cent'.

Mr Lim said: 'While we will continue to build roads like the North-South Expressway (NSE), going ahead, the pace of road expansion will have to slow down, from one per cent a year over the last 15 years, to 0.5 per cent a year over the next 15 years.'

The vehicle population has shot up by more than 100,000 units since Mr Lim's remarks.

Based on LTA data, there were 956,704 vehicles plying Singapore roads at end-2011, up 1.15 per cent from end-2010's 945,829 vehicles.

Singapore is the second most densely populated country in the world and roads take up 12 per cent of our land area. Only Monaco is more densely populated, with 35,000 people living in less than two square kilometres.

For FY2011, the government set aside $1,615.99 million to extend the road network, down slightly from $1,629 million in FY2010.

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$5m for observatory to break new ground in earth sciences

Kezia Toh Straits Times 29 Feb 12;

THE Earth Observatory of Singapore (EOS), an earth sciences research body at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), has big plans for a $5 million endowment it has just received.

Its proposed ideas for researching and teaching of earth sciences were picked for support by the AXA Research Fund, the philanthropic arm of insurance company AXA.

EOS director Kerry Sieh said the money will fund research into five natural hazards particularly troublesome to South-east Asia.

These are tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, rising sea levels and climate change.

For example, studies will be done on earthquake-generating faults, active volcanoes and the nature of rising sea levels.

Professor Sieh, a geologist by training, also wants to take the teaching of earth sciences further: 'I want to develop a new way of teaching earth science that uses examples from South-east Asia rather than something that is California- or European-centric.'

In fact, he wants the teaching of the subject done so well that a Singaporean brand name will be established, the same way the Singapore method of teaching mathematics is now recognised abroad.

He added that one important thrust in the EOS' plans is connecting with policymakers, businesses and educators, and giving them information on natural hazards so that they may better plan ahead, make decisions or teach more effectively.

Data on the amount of volcanic ash in the atmosphere, for example, would be relevant to aviation.

The EOS will also collaborate with other NTU institutes, he said. These include the Institute of Catastrophe Risk Management, the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, the Nanyang Business School and the National Institute of Education.

The endowment from AXA, announced yesterday, also makes Prof Sieh the AXA-Nanyang Chair in Natural Hazards.

This is the first such AXA position in Asia. AXA funds 12 other chairs in countries such as Britain, Italy and Spain.

Prof Sieh will head a team of 20, which includes National Research Foundation research fellow Emma Mary Hill and volcano specialist Fidel Costa.

Mr Godefroy Beauvallet, who heads the AXA Research Fund, said of the fund's choice of the EOS: 'We look at the partners who have the potential to do great research and focus on capacity-building - helping them develop bigger teams, acquire new equipment and liaise with new partners - that is the way we do great research.'

Set up in 2008, the AXA Research Fund has received 3,000 research proposals, but has chosen to back fewer than 300.

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Malaysia: Hunting party to kill menacing wild boars

Hamdan Raja Abdullah The Star 29 Feb 12;

MUAR: Villagers in Air Hitam here have decided to launch a hunting party to shoot wild boars responsible for four deaths, damaging crops and for eating their chickens.

Air Hitam penghulu Ariffpuddin Abdul Latif said four villagers had been killed since last year when the wild boars smashed into their motorcycles or bicycles at night.

He said two of the deaths occurred along the Muar – Air Hitam road while the other two, took place along plantation roads between Kampung Seri Sempadan and Kampung Parit Haji Anuar.

“There are at least 200 wild boars roaming in the plantations of these villages and they also forage for food near the houses.

“Since they have caused fear, we decided to organise a hunting party to shoot them,” he said after presenting some RM2,400 worth of shells to Muar Shooting Club president Sia Tiong Ming recently.

Ariffpuddin said the shells were donated by Bukit Naning assemblyman Datuk Abdullah Ali, who had asked the club and the Wildlife Department for help.

He said the club had decided to send some 80 members along with hunting dogs and they had teamed up with Wildlife Department officers to enter the villages on Sunday.

He said before the hunt took off, villagers in five areas in Air Hitam were advised not to enter their plots to avoid any unwanted incidents.

He said the hunters entered the plots at 8am and by 3pm, they had managed to shoot 18 wild boars, adding that, the hunt would continue until the villages were free from wild boar menace.

Meanwhile, Sia said many areas in the district now had wild boars and advised the residents to be on the alert when entering areas with thick undergrowth.

“We may not be able to shoot all the wild boars here but we can at least reduce their number,” he added.

Wild boar attacks two
Farik Zolkepli The Star 1 Mar 12;

KUALA TERENGGANU: Two orang asli women searching for herbs and firewood in Kampung Sungai Berua, Hulu Terengganu, were injured after being attacked by a 70kg wild boar.

Dajang, 62, was bitten on her arms and legs while her daughter Sallek Bakar, in her 30s, had injuries all over her body.

Both women have been warded at the Sultanah Nur Zahirah Hospital.

Sallek’s sister was unharmed during the savage attack at 10am yesterday.

Dajang said they would often go to the jungle some 5km away from Kampung Sungai Berua to look for firewood.

“I was collecting wood when I saw the wild boar walking in front of us. We didn’t have time to flee as it came charging at us.

“The animal bit me on my arms and legs before attacking my daughter,” she said, adding that Sallek had tried to beat the boar off with a stick but this only sent it into a frenzy.

Dajang said she started shouting for help when the wild boar set upon Sallek. However, no one came.

The boar ran off after attacking the women.

“We managed to make our way to the village and seek help. This is the first time we have been attacked like this. I am still shocked,” she said.

A fellow villager who declined to be named said wild boars were a common sight in the jungle.

Rangers on the hunt for rogue wild boar
The Star 2 Mar 12;

KUALA TERENGGANU: The hunt is on for the wild boar that attacked two orang asli women in the jungle near Kampung Sungai Berua, Hulu Terengganu.

The Terengganu Wildlife and National Parks Department has dispatched four rangers, led by its Hulu Terengganu chief Wan Harmizi Wan Jusoh, to catch the animal which has been described as dangerous.

Department director Yusoff Shariff said it was the first time that such attacks had occurred in the area.

“We believe the two women had ventured near the animal's lair.

“It is extremely dangerous and we hope people will not venture into the jungle near the village until we catch the animal,” he said yesterday.

“The department has cordoned off the area. We will hunt down the animal and put it down as soon as possible,” he said.

The two women Sallek Bakar, in her 30s, and her mother Dajang, 62 were reportedly searching for herbs and firewood when they were attacked by the wild boar, said to weigh around 70kg, on Wednesday.

Dajang was bitten on her arms and legs while her daughter had injuries all over her body.

Both women have been warded at Sultanah Nur Zahirah Hospital.

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E. Kalimantan’s Green Turtle Population Rapidly Dying Off

Tunggadewa Mattangkilang Jakarta Globe 28 Feb 12;

Berau, East Kalimantan. The green turtle population in the Berau marine conservation area off East Kalimantan has declined by about 70 percent in the past decade as a result of human activity, a wildlife activist revealed on Monday.

Rusli Andar, coordinator for World Wildlife Fund Indonesia’s East Kalimantan marine program, said that there were an estimated 100,0000 to 150,000 turtles in the conservation area in 2002 but that by 2010 the numbers had dropped to between 30,000 and 50,000.

“There are a lot of factors for this, including the illegal trade in turtles and turtle eggs, the killing of turtles for their shells and the continued use of trawl nets by fishermen in which the turtles get tangled up and die,” he said.

But the biggest threat, Rusli said, is the development of beach resorts on some of the 12 islands within the conservation zone, including Derawan and Sangalaki islands, whose beaches are important nesting grounds for turtles that lay their eggs there.

Rusli said the Berau administration had allowed a spate of development in recent years in order to cater to the growing number of tourists in the area.

What is ironic, he pointed out, is that the turtles are one of the main reasons tourists come to Berau. So by destroying their nesting grounds, the administration is killing off a key source of income.

“Why would tourists still come here if there were no turtles?” Rusli said .

He also bemoaned the lack of enforcement against the trade in turtles and their eggs.

Under the 1990 Natural Resources Conservation Law, the green turtle is a protected species and anyone caught trading it faces up to five years in prison and Rp 100 million ($11,000) in fines.

“It’s clear that the trade in turtles, whether live or dead, is prohibited by law, yet the fact remains that the practice is thriving,” Rusli said.

“Law enforcement on this issue is still weak.”

Spanning 1.32 million hectares, the Berau marine conservation area, established in 2005, is the largest green turtle refuge in Indonesian waters.

It is also home to the second-highest coral reef biodiversity in Indonesia after West Papua’s Raja Ampat Islands, and the third-highest in the world.

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Nowhere to Hide: Sumatran Tigers Threatened by Human Destruction of Groundcover

ScienceDaily 28 Feb 12;

The elimination of ground-level vegetation is bringing another of the world's tiger subspecies to the brink of extinction, according to Virginia Tech and World Wildlife Fund researchers.

The Sumatran tiger, native to Indonesia, could be the fourth type of tiger to disappear from the wild. This is due, in part, because of deforestation and the loss of thick groundcover, also known as understory cover, said Sunarto, lead scientist on a study that is the first to systematically investigate the use of both forests and plantation areas for tiger habitat.

Although tiger's prefer forest to plantation areas, the study found that the most important factor was that availability of thick ground-level vegetation which apparently serves as an environmental necessity for tiger habitat, regardless of location.

"As ambush hunters, tigers would find it hard to capture their prey without adequate understory cover," said Sunarto, who earned his doctorate at Virginia Tech and now is a tiger expert for the World Wildlife Fund-Indonesia (WWF-Indonesia). "The lack of cover also leaves tigers vulnerable to persecution by humans, who generally perceive them as dangerous."

Within forest areas, tigers also strongly prefer sites that have low levels of human disturbance as indicated by their preference for areas closer to forest centers and farther from human activity centers such as bodies of water and areas bordering plantations and towns.

Tigers occupy only around 7 percent of their historic range. Estimates place the current wild tiger populations at as few as 3,200 tigers, including only about 400 Sumatran tigers, which are listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species.

"These study results indicate that to thrive, tigers depend on the existence of large contiguous forest blocks," said study co-author Marcella Kelly, an associate professor in Virginia Tech's Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation and Sunarto's graduate advisor.

The Indonesian government has set aside many areas and national parks for the conservation of endangered species but about 70 percent of tiger habitat in Sumatra, an island in western Indonesia, remains outside these protected areas. The preservation of such habitats, which requires support from government, landowners, and concession holders, is critical for conservation of the species, the study authors emphasize.

A recently published Indonesian presidential decree on land use in Sumatra points out the importance of building wildlife corridors between critical areas, where commitments from concession owners are key to successful implementation.

"Even with current legal protection for the species, tigers are not doing well in many places, especially those outside protected areas," Sunarto said. "As long as forest conversion continues, tigers will require active protection or they will quickly disappear from our planet."

The study concludes that in order to protect tigers, it is critical to stop clearing Indonesia's remaining natural forests for plantations. With adjustments in management practices on existing plantations to include more understory and riparian forest corridors, tigers could use a mosaic of forest patches across fragmented landscapes.

"We hope that plantation managers and concession owners can use the recommendations of this report to apply best management practices to further protect Sumatran tigers from extinction," said Anwar Purwoto, director of the Forest, Freshwater, and Species Program at WWF¬Indonesia.

"Ensuring that tigers are able to roam freely in natural forests and restored habitat is crucial to their survival," said co-author Sybille Klenzendorf, head of WWF's species program, who earned her master's and doctorate degrees in wildlife science from Virginia Tech. "This study is a reminder of just how important it is for us to protect the natural forests that tigers and other animals rely on."

The report was published in the Public Library of Science's online journal PLoS ONE on Jan. 23, and was a collaboration between the university and WWF, with support from the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry.

Journal Reference:

Sunarto Sunarto, Marcella J. Kelly, Karmila Parakkasi, Sybille Klenzendorf, Eka Septayuda, Harry Kurniawan. Tigers Need Cover: Multi-Scale Occupancy Study of the Big Cat in Sumatran Forest and Plantation Landscapes. PLoS ONE, 2012; 7 (1): e30859 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0030859

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Global campaign to take dugong off the menu

Vesela Todorova The National 29 Feb 12;

Saving the dugong from extinction has as much to do with tackling poverty as it does conservation work, scientists say.

A programme to help developing nations to protect and not eat the shy marine mammal, also known as the sea cow, was launched yesterday in the capital.

"The problem for dugongs is that most live offshore from developing tropical countries," said Professor Helene Marsh, the technical adviser for the Dugong, Seagrass and Coastal Communities Initiative.

"In those countries, people are often hungry and dugongs are worth much more dead than alive.

"They are long-lived and slow-breeding, very accessible to people and delicious to eat. If I gave you some dugong meat, which would be highly illegal, you would probably say it was veal."

The programme, organised by the office of the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) and the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS). Their branch in Abu Dhabi services the Dugong Memorandum of Understanding, which was signed by 21 of the 40 states where dugongs live.

The Abu Dhabi office is funded and hosted by the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi (Ead).

It aims to start community projects in Mozambique, Papua New Guinea and the Gulf of Mannar, between India from Sri Lanka. The idea is to help to improve the livelihoods of traditional communities, offering incentives to protect dugongs.

Dr Donna Kwan, the programme officer for the joint effort, said the initiative was looking for funding of about US$5 million (Dh18.3m) in the first three years.

Dr Kwan said that of the three projects, the one in Mozambique's Bazaruto Archipelago is closest to completion and could be running within a year.

While Abu Dhabi's dugong population is stable, the number of recorded deaths rose last year, said Thabit Al Abdessalaam, the executive director of the Marine and Terrestrial Biodiversity Sector at Ead.

The annual average is seven or eight, but last year 13 deaths were recorded, Mr Al Abdessalaam said.

"It is still within the safe limits but it something we need to monitor and watch closely," he said.

Most of the deaths were recorded in the Western Region, and drowning in nets is the most common cause.

Dugongs can live for more than 70 years but if food is scarce they may not start breeding until they are 17.

Their metabolism is so slow it is comparable to that of the three-toed sloth.

That unique biology and dependence of sensitive seagrass beds mean only 13 in a population of 1,000 can be lost in a year if their numbers are to remain healthy.

With almost 3,000 dugongs, Abu Dhabi has the world's second-largest population. Australia has the largest.

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Madagascar Gets 'Roadmap' To Conserving Marine Life Yahoo News 29 Feb 12;

A "roadmap" for preserving marine life around the famously biologically rich island of Madagascar has been proposed in a new study released last week.

Madagascar is one of the poorest countries on Earth yet has proposed to create more than 1 million hectares (3,861 square miles) of protected areas to provide for the long-term conservation of its marine resources, including coral reefs and mangroves.

The new study, conducted by the University of California, Berkeley, the Wildlife Conservation Society and others used what is called (borrowing from the financial world) a "diversified portfolio" approach, to identify what areas need protection and use a variety of strategies to protect them. These options include implementing strict no-take zones (where fishing is completely banned) to areas that would allow fishing.

"It behooves countries, in the face of impending fisheries and climate crises, to plan and implement intelligent management that will increase the resilience of their natural marine resources," said study co-author Tim McClanahan of the WCS. "This paper will provide a roadmap for Madagascar to plan and manage these resources and the methods should prove affordable and useful for the poorest countries where adaptation to climate change will make marine spatial planning a critical part of a successful response."

The method looked at existing information on the country's climate, along with dependence on fisheries and marine resources, and applies three different planning approaches to establish priorities for management along Madagascar's entire west coast.

The study authors said the process provides a more efficient and comprehensive way to plan on a large scale and they found that several marine areas in Madagascar are conservation priorities across all methods.

These conservation priorities included coral reefs in the vicinity of the Barren Islands, the large shallow banks to the northwest and southwest, and the reefs of Juan de Nova.

The study also found endangered regions due to heavy human pressure in the south, and areas of high climate variability intermixed with lower vulnerability but high biodiversity in the northwest. Areas of particularly high biodiversity value include the islands, reefs and bays of the northwest; the fringing reefs of the southwest; and the barrier reefs and islands of the central west coast.

The study was published in the Feb. 16 issue of the journal PLoS One.

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New flu virus is found in bats

AFP Yahoo News 28 Feb 12;

A new strain of influenza A has been found in fruit bats, indicating for the first time that bats, like birds, can be carriers of the virus, though it is not believed risky to humans, according to US health authorities.

"This is the first time an influenza virus has been identified in bats, but in its current form the virus is not a human health issue," said Suxiang Tong, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's pathogen discovery program.

"The study is important because the research has identified a new animal species that may act as a source of flu viruses."

The influenza A virus was detected in a sample of three of 316 live little yellow-shouldered bats captured at two different sites in Guatemala.

That type of bat is not known to bite humans but feeds on fruit, and is native to Central and South America.

Previous flu pandemics, such as the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, which came to the public's attention as "swine flu," have been known to originate in animals and eventually transform so that they gain the ability to infect people.

"Fortunately, initial laboratory testing suggests the new virus would need to undergo significant changes to become capable of infecting and spreading easily among humans," said Ruben Donis, chief of the Molecular Virology and Vaccines Branch in CDC's Influenza Division.

"A different animal -- such as a pig, horse or dog -- would need to be capable of being infected with both this new bat influenza virus and human influenza viruses for reassortment to occur."

More details about the findings are published in the US journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Malaysians protest against rare earths plant

Melissa Goh Channel NewsAsia 27 Feb 12;

KUALA LUMPUR: Protests over the controversial rare earths processing plant in Malaysia appear to be gaining momentum despite safety assurances from Prime Minister Najib Razak.

He says scientific evidence shows the Pahang plant is "harmless" to residents living in its vicinity.

Anti-Lynas protesters say they are disappointed with Mr Najib's statement, adding that "a clean environment needs a clean government".

They are planning to tie up with Bersih, the electoral reform group for joint protests.

Located in the Gebeng industrial zone, some 20 kilometres north of Pahang's state capital Kuantan, stands what would be the world's largest rare earths refinery.

The Lynas advanced materials processing plant is built over 100 hectares of land, at a whopping US$373 million.

And the Australian miner says the plant is 91 percent ready.

But over the weekend, thousands of Malaysians voiced their opposition against the plant.

And even though security was tightened ahead of Himpunan Hijau 2.0, it was the largest anti-Lynas gathering so far.

More than 10,000 people turned up, some even from far-off areas.

Foo How and his friends were among protesters who drove 260 kilometres from Kuala Lumpur to join the rally.

He says Malaysia has nothing to gain from Lynas.

"It's tax free, with 12 years tax free, we are not earning anything or charging environmental tax," he said.

Local residents urged the authorities not to gamble with their children's future.

"I have two kids, this thing is very dangerous for us, we must stop Lynas and save Malaysia."

"I don't think we need to take this sort of risk."

Others were more realistic - they want Lynas to commit to a long-term waste disposal plan.

"If they take back their waste, they comply with all environmental needs, they can operate here, BASF is here, Amoco is here, that's how they do it, they pick up their waste and do it properly."

There are some 30,000 people living within a three-kilometre radius of the plant, and despite safety assurances from the prime minister, many are not convinced.

"Don't talk about tourists, even our local people are also now planning to move out from the place. After 20 years, our children our great grandchildren, they said nothing is going to happen but we are not sure. There's no point getting angry, it's already done, even if we are angry what else can we do but protest?"

While some local residents are contemplating moving out of the state to avoid the risk of possible radiation, others are worried about tourist arrivals if the plant is allowed to fire up and begin operation.

The concern has even spread to Kuantan's renowned salted fish business.

Villagers worry that the rising fear of contamination and all the negative publicity surrounding Lynas may take a toll on their businesses.

- CNA/de

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Tsunami debris spreads halfway across Pacific

Audrey McAvoy Associated Press Yahoo News 29 Feb 12;

HONOLULU (AP) — Lumber, boats and other debris ripped from Japanese coastal towns by tsunamis last year have spread across some 3,000 miles of the North Pacific, where they could wash ashore on remote islands north of Hawaii this winter.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated the first bits of tsunami debris will make landfall soon on small atolls northwest of the main Hawaiian Islands.

NOAA's tsunami marine debris coordinator, Ruth Yender, told an online news conference Tuesday that agency workers were boarding Coast Guard flights that patrol the archipelago. NOAA also asked scientists stationed at Midway and other atolls to look for the debris.

Debris initially collected in a thick mass in the ocean after tsunamis dragged homes, boats, cars and other parts of daily life from coastal towns out to sea. Most likely sank not far from Japan's eastern coast.

In September, a Russian training ship spotted a refrigerator, a television set and other appliances west of Hawaii. By now, the debris has likely drifted so far apart that only one object can be seen at a time, said Nikolai Maximenko, a University of Hawaii researcher and ocean currents expert.

One to 2 million tons of debris remain in the ocean, but only one to 5 percent of that could reach Hawaii, Alaska, Oregon, Washington state and Canada's British Columbia, Maximenko said. The tsunamis generated a total of 20 million to 25 million tons of debris, including what was left on land.

Yender said that so far, no debris confirmed to be from the tsunamis has landed on American shores, including large buoys suspected to be from Japanese oyster farms found in Alaska last year. The buoys would have had to travel faster than currents to get to Alaska at that time if they were set loose by the March 11 tsunamis.

Similar buoys have washed ashore in Alaska and the U.S. West Coast before the tsunami, she said.

Nicholas Mallos, a conservation biologist and marine debris specialist for the Ocean Conservancy, said many of the objects in the debris were expected to be from Japan's fishing industry. That could pose a risk for wildlife, such as endangered Hawaiian monk seals, if fishing gear washes up on coral reefs or beaches.

"The major question is how much of that material has sank since last year, and how much of that remains afloat or still in the water column," Mallos said.

Maximenko said the dispersion of the debris makes it more difficult to track but no less hazardous.

"In many cases it's not density that matters, it's total amount," he said. "For example, if there's a current flowing around Midway island, that island would collect debris like a trawl moving across the ocean. It will collect all the debris on its way."

Ultimately, Maximenko said, tsunami debris will join garbage floating in a gyre north of Hawaii produced by swirling Pacific currents. Much of that trash in a wide area known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is bits of plastic, which slowly breaks down into smaller pieces but doesn't completely disappear.

It was unclear whether large items like refrigerators will make it across the ocean because there has been little precedent for such an event.

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