EVERY DAY HUNDREDS of discarded fishing nets drift through Pacific waters, twisting and turning with the currents. They stretch from several metres to 6km; their plastic fibres indiscriminately trapping any marine life that gets in the way. These lethal damaged or abandoned “ghost nets”
Across northern Australia, a marine blight is being transformed into bright indigenous art
can, it’s estimated, take up to 600 years to decay. Many eventually wash up on the beaches of northern Australia.
Twelve years ago, former prawn trawler skipper Riki Gunn set about establishing a marine conservation group to patrol the beaches, pick up
the nets and free entangled creatures. Today indigenous rangers from 40 different clan groups regularly scour 3000km of isolated coastline rescuing endangered turtles, dugongs and other marine life for GhostNets Australia.
Within months of the rangers first beginning their work, piles of netting built up. With the help of Queensland artist Sue Ryan, who had been working with indigenous artists around Lockhart River, Gunn set out to find solutions to help dispose of them. Ideas poured in through a national competition – to turn the plastic fibres into everything from guitar straps to bags and art installations – and soon Ryan was organising craft workshops with the Ghost Net Art Project.
Ryan couldn’t help but marvel at the variety of colours, weaves and thicknesses of the fibres. “I was really excited because it was completely different from anything I’d ever worked with,” she says. “It was also a great way of raising awareness about the ghost nets.”
Today Ryan works with communities from the Northern Territory, around the Gulf of Carpentaria and
through the Torres Strait Islands to turn these floating walls of deadly mesh – and other washed-up materials such as flip-flops, plastic garbage and glass – into useful and beautiful things.
Employing both modern and traditional techniques, artists weave, felt, coil and sew everything from baskets, dol ls and sculptures to hats and jewellery. Large and small sculptures of colourful fish or barnacle-encrusted whales are proving particularly powerful in alerting the public to the dangers of ghost nets. “It’s magical really,” says Ryan, “to see people coming together to make art out of an environmental hazard.”
Then she pauses and adds: “It’s the one project where you want the medium to run out.”
Artist Sue Ryan (above left) helps others turn washed-up rubbish into objects of beauty
Diamond Scale Mullet by Lynnette Griffiths started out as debris from commercial fishing
Erub Island’s Florence Gutchen works on large ghost-net sculptures
The nets drift in on monsoonal and trade wind currents and tides from across the region
Zoe and Stan by Zoe de Jersey