Sea Treasures

Some of the belongings we treasure most cost us nothing. But for me, my treasures must be beautiful, come with a story, or both.

These Japanese glass fishing floats count in both categories.

When we lived in Alaska over thirty years ago, friends came from Kodiak Island to visit. Their hobby was beachcombing. They brought a hostess gift, some green glass fishing floats they had found near their home.

Glass plugs sealed the floats. Notice patterns left by the netting .

We don’t know how old they are, but we know that by 1844 in Norway, egg-sized glass floats were being used with fishing line and hooks, and also to support fishing nets. Japan used glass floats as early as 1910. Most of the glass floats we see today originated in Japan because of the country’s large deep-sea fishing industry. Today’s floats are made of plastic, aluminum or Styrofoam and to my way of thinking, will never have the cachet for collectors that the earlier versions had.

Fishermen once strung large groups of nets together and floated them by means of hollow glass balls or cylinders. Sometimes these nets stretched for fifty miles, so it was common to lose some of the floats. Some are still caught in the circular currents of the Pacific ocean, riding the waves until a storm or tidal condition breaks the pattern and releases them to be cast up on a North American (or Taiwanese) beach. Most ride the current for seven to ten years before coming to shore.

When a float does wash up on a beach, it may roll in the surf until it is “etched” by sand. Sun and salt water also leave their distinctive wear patterns. When netting breaks off of a float, you can see its pattern remaining on the surface, where the netting protected the underlying glass.

Most Japanese fishing floats were hand made by a glassblower, often using recycled glass. Most of them are shades of green because that was the color of the old sake bottles used for recycling, although other colors were produced. Air bubbles in the glass were a result of the rapid recycling process. After shaping, the floats were removed from the blowpipe and sealed with a plug of molten glass, then placed in a cooling oven. Most colored floats for sale today are replicas.

While inspecting the castaway Japanese dock I wrote about in my previous post, The Long Journey, I thought of my collection of fishing floats from Japan. We know the story of that derelict dock. We can only surmise how and when the floats got here. I suppose the dock might someday be hauled off the beach and form some kind of a tsunami monument. My floats will always be just a curiosity…little monuments to unknown fishermen who once worked the ocean deeps to feed their families. Wouldn’t it be interesting if some of their descendants lived in Misawa, where modern fishermen used the dock to unload fish from their boats?

A Long Journey

Japanese dock ashore on Oregon beach        

The dock was covered with marine organisms when it landed.

Recently we took the long way home to Washington after a visit to Roseburg, Oregon. We followed Oregon’s beautiful coastline, stopping to see lighthouses and explore beaches.

After spending a night in Newport, next morning we drove to nearby Yaquina Head Lighthouse. From the headland we could see sandy Agate Beach stretching along the shore. We also saw a boxy, man-made object stranded on the beach, with people clustered around it. “It’s the dock from Japan,” I exclaimed.

We drove back to our waterfront hotel and hiked down the beach to the big block of cement, one of four dock sections ripped away from their pilings when last year’s tsunami hit the fishing port of Misawa. One of them washed up on a Japanese island and two are still missing, but the winds and currents combined to carry this 66’ x 19’ x 7’ behemoth across 5000 miles of ocean to Agate Beach.

When the dock washed ashore in early June of this year, it carried millions of living organisms, including several species of plants, crabs, even a starfish native to Japan and unknown as yet in this country. When we saw it, volunteers had already scraped away a ton and a half of marine organisms and buried them above the high water line. Then they sterilized the dock with torches. Scientists are concerned that plants or creatures riding the debris from the tsunami will reproduce and establish a foothold along our coast, to the detriment of our wildlife.

Other items that were part of people’s lives in Japan are washing onto American and Canadian shores from California to Alaska. Unless they’d been in Japan’s waters prior to the tsunami, most will probably not carry unwelcome passengers. But by October, experts expect our coastlines to be inundated with about a million tons of debris.

Let’s hope there’ll be plans in place to deal with it.