Everything We Don’t Know by Aaron Gilbreath

Aaron Gilbreath reads from the title essay of his new collection, Everything We Don't Know, published in November by Curbside Splendor.

Everything We Don't Know

On Friday March 23, 2012, a year after Japan's Fukushima nuclear disaster, a Canadian patrol aircraft spotted a rusty vessel floating toward the British Columbia coast. It was the Ryou-Un Maru, a Hokkaido shrimping ship, and it was unmanned.

The 9.0 Tōhoku earthquake that struck Japan's east coast killed nearly 16,000 people and unleashed a tsunami that decimated towns and washed between four and eight million tons of debris into the Pacific Ocean. A splintered, foaming mess containing cars and cables, houses, lumber and human beings surged as far as six miles inland before spilling into the sea. About 70% of the debris sank, but a year later, 1.5 million tons, what the Los Angeles Times said amounted to "roughly 100,000 garbage trucks' worth," were still floating on the open ocean.

The Ryou-Un Maru was the first large piece of tsunami debris to cross the Pacific. The press called it a "ghost ship." The Canadian transport ministry monitored to make sure it didn't leak fuel or block commercial passage. After a month drifting north, the U.S. Coast Guard blasted the ship with cannon fire 180 miles off the Alaskan coast and let it sink 6,000 feet.

Three months later, a 66 foot long cement dock beached itself in a scenic cove north of Newport, Oregon. People climbed atop it, posed and took photos. The seaweed-covered dock had floated 4,700 miles from the town of Misawa on northern Honshu, Japan's main island. The seven foot tall structure's Styrofoam filling kept it afloat, and a metal plaque identified its origins. As Hirofumi Murabayashi of the Japanese Consulate in Portland told the news, “The owner of this dock is Aomori Prefecture, and they told us that they do not wish to have it returned.” Authorities sawed off a section to display in a tsunami awareness exhibit at Newport's Hatfield Marine Science Visitor Center, and Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber created a hotline to report tsunami debris.

People on the Oregon coast are used to picking up trash. Everything from lighters and plastic bags to huge swollen logs wash ashore, but this trans-oceanic debris was different. Debris hunters came to photograph and collect it. Some sold their finds on eBay. Tsunami treasure hunting became sport, and the town of Seaside, Oregon even used it to attract tourists. But coastal trash is neither fun nor attractive. It strangles birds, poisons fish and damages fisheries, and it can carry invasive species. After Fukushima, debris provided powerful evidence of decreasing oceanic health, and it served as an undeniable symbol of ecological connectivity. If the trash made it this far, people reasoned, what about the radiation?

The massive tsunami that pounded Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex in 2011 caused a triple meltdown, multiple reactor explosions, and released large but still unknown amounts of radioactive cesium-137, cesium-134, strontium-90, neptunium-237, uranium-236, plutonium-239 and -240, iodine-131 and -129, rutherium, tritium and radium into the air, groundwater and ocean. The French Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety's  report called the plant's initial breakdown "the largest single contribution of radionuclides to the marine environment ever observed." People named the radioactive material "the plume" and watched as it dispersed on various Pacific currents. With all the debris hitting the West Coast, the distance between Japan and the U.S. no longer felt so vast.

As the California naturalist John Muir famously said, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe." Americans wanted to think of Fukushima as Japan's problem. We were here and Japan was there. So we sent our condolences and donated to relief efforts and got back to watering our gardens and eating sushi ─ myself included. The question many scientists were asking on everyone's behalf was whether Japan's problem was poisoning the plankton that larger fish ate. If so, it would poison us.

Scientists didn't initially know how the radiation was moving through the marine ecosystem, or what it would do to marine life over time, but a few, like oceanographer Ken Buesseler, immediately started studying it, and many activists and conspiratorial bloggers knew that they had to cut through the governmental rhetoric and Tokyo Electric Power Company cover-ups to find the truth. One truth was as clear as it had always been: everything is connected. If you thought you were safe, you were wrong.

* * *

I first visited the Oregon coast as a tourist in 1995. My parents and I came on vacation. We'd visited Seattle the previous summer, and western Oregon looked like an equally beautiful destination. By the time I graduated from college in Arizona, return trips had left me so in love with the Northwest that I moved to Portland in 2000, intent on sustaining myself on its moist air, clean tap water and abundant local food. I was a co-op person. I ate ancient grains, organic produce, and lots and lots of seafood. I still do.

Most of the protein in my diet comes from Pacific fish. I prefer the small silver oily species: sardines, anchovies, saury and herring. Small fish are rich sources of calcium, phosphorus, vitamins A and D and omega-3 fatty acids. Protein sustains your energy. Certain omega-3s, like DHA and EPA, may reduce the growth of breast, colon and prostate cancer, lower blood pressure, prevent hardening of the arteries and heart disease, and possibly lessen the cognitive degeneration associated with Alzheimer’s. Americans take supplemental cod liver oil for omega-3, but my beloved little fish are naturally loaded with it. The general wisdom is that eating fish a few times a week is part of a healthy diet. It's one explanation why so many Okinawans live to be centenarians. Seaweed, tofu and tea are other reasons. I consume those foods every week. 

We Jews eat lots of fish. I eat it for breakfast, for lunch and for dinner ─ it doesn't matter what season. After high school I vowed not to suffer my father's health problems. I loved country food, but I refused to suffer health problems that I caused myself through diet. So I went vegetarian for a while, later vegan. Now, I eat a more balanced healthy diet.

To cut down on our water and carbon footprints, my wife Rebekah and I became weekday vegetarians: no beef, chicken or pork Monday through Friday. At a time when the overfished Pacific bluefin tuna faces extinction, and farm-raised salmon's nutritional and environmental costs are hotly debated, shifting my eating habits from livestock and large fish to durable "bait" fish felt like smart environmental stewardship. It's called eating lower on the food chain. Many of those small fish sit low enough on the trophic ladder, and live short enough lives, that they aren't as polluted with mercury and PCBs as higher order, top predators like tuna, sea bass and swordfish. Many reproduce quickly, so they've rebounded from past overfishing and can be responsibly managed as a sustainable, healthy food.

To further lower my footprint, I usually buy Pacific fish, rather than fish imported from the Mediterranean and North Atlantic. The Pacific is less than 100 miles west of our home in Portland. It's the world's largest ocean, and one of the most productive. But after Fukushima, I no longer feel safe eating from it. When I buy my monthly stash of Japanese, South Korean and Thai canned fish, I wonder whether I should buy sardines and anchovies from Spain, Portugal and North Africa instead.

Since moving to Oregon, I've visited the coast countless times. I've swam. I've boogie-boarded. I've been sprayed by waves crashing at the base of tall lighthouses, and I plan to hike and camp on the coast for the rest of my life. Rebekah and I just bought a house and want to raise a child. The blue water looks as true as it always has. But now when I visit places like Seaside and Newport, I look out over the ocean and wonder what's in there coming for us next.

* * *

In March, 2013, a 14 foot long, black and red wooden beam was found on the beach near Oceanside, Oregon. It was a kasagi, the horizontal crossbeam that connects the two side beams on a Japanese torii temple gate. The following month, another kasagi beached itself near the Siuslaw River in Florence, a hundred twenty miles to the south. Locals rightly wondered if the kasagi were radioactive.

Cesium-137 can burn or sicken you on contact. When ingested, it accumulates in your muscles and other soft tissues, where it gives off the gamma and beta radiation that can cause cancer. Other Fukushima and Chernobyl nucleotides, like strontium-90, are easily ingested when they get in food and water. "Once in the body," says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Sr-90 acts like calcium and is readily incorporated into bones and teeth, where it can cause cancers of the bone, bone marrow, and soft tissues around the bone." As coastal Oregonians photographed and sold debris on eBay, others questioned the wisdom of handling trash from the world's second worst nuclear disaster. Fortunately, authorities concluded that the kasagi were not radioactive.


From Everything We Don't Know by Aaron Gilbreath. Copyright © 2016 by Aaron Gilbreath. Excerpted by permission of Curbside Splendor. All rights reserved.