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The Glass Fishing Floats of Japan And Norway

Every year, Oregon’s Lincoln City, on the west coast of the United States, organizes a treasure hunt where more than 3,000 handcrafted glass orbs are hidden on public beaches for people to find. The orbs come in a range of sizes—from the size of a baseball to as large as a basketball. They are hollow and are decorated with colorful swirling patterns.

The Finders Keepers treasure hunt has been an annual event for the last two decades, but there was a time when nobody had to hid glass balls on the beach for others to find. These balls came naturally from the ocean, usually after the winter storms, and were—and still are—prized items among collectors. They are called Glass Fishing Floats, and were once used by fishermen in many parts of the world, most notable in Japan and Norway, to keep their fishing nets afloat.

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Photo credit: www.glassfloatjunkie.com

In commercial fishing, large groups of fishnets are strung together for many miles and set adrift in the open ocean supported by hollow spheres filled with air. Today, these spheres are made of plastic and aluminum, but they were once made of glass.

Glass floats were first made in 1842 by a Norwegian glass company, Hadeland Glassverk, based on the idea of a Norwegian merchant from Bergen named Christopher Faye. Earlier, floats were made of wood and cork, which suffered from water-logging and broke apart, or were damaged by sea worms. Glass floats were resistant to such abuse. There were also lightweight, durable and lasted nearly forever in the sea environment.

Glass floats rapidly became the standard for the European fishing industry, but it would take another century for wood and cork floats to be completely phased out. Japan began manufacturing glass floats around 1910, and used them extensively until they themselves were replaced by plastic and aluminum floats in the 1970s. In the sixty years they were in use, vast quantities of these floats broke away from the nets and were lost at sea. Because of Japan’s large deep sea fishing industry, the majority of lost floats bobbing up and down in the Pacific today can be traced back to this one single country.

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Photo credit: Jgrimmer/Wikimedia

The glass floats are trapped in a circular pattern of currents in the Pacific Ocean but occasionally gets washed ashore on the west coast of United States, and Canada, in Taiwan, on the beaches in Micronesia and Polynesia. Floats have also been found on beaches and along coral reefs on Pacific islands and on the Atlantic, on remote islets in the Caribbean islands or even in Europe.

Most floats are a shade of green because there were made of recycled sake bottles. Less common are floats made of very pale amethyst glass. These floats might originally have been clear, but if the glass contained enough manganese they may have turned an amethyst color from exposure to ultra-violet rays. Brightly colored ones such as reds, neon greens, cobalt blues and brilliant yellows, are modern replicas made for gift shops and décor.

Authentic floats contain bubbles and impurities embedded inside the glass, and show considerable wear and tear on its outer surface. Most authentic floats also have a trademark or a logo embossed in Japanese script. To accommodate different fishing styles and nets, the floats used to come in variety of sizes ranging from 2 to 20 inches in diameter, and different shapes. But larger ones are hard to find.

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Old fishing nets with glass floats hanging at a boathouse wall in Norway. Photo credit: Ingrid Maasik / Shutterstock.com

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Glass floats along with fishing net recovered in Norway. Photo credit: glassfloats.blogspot.com

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A glass float found on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Photo credit: WhatiMom/Flickr

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