A fishing net that has been lost or abandoned is known as a ghost net, one of the more formidable elements of “ghost gear,” which includes an array of traps, lines, pots, and other equipment discarded or no longer in use by the fishing industry. Due to their vast size, nets pose an ongoing threat to marine wildlife that get tangled in the synthetic mesh and to coral reefs that are smothered by them. Ghost Net Collective, an Australian cross-cultural group of artists who began working together at Erub Arts in 1996, seeks to educate viewers about what co-founder Lynnette Griffiths calls the “silent predator” of the ocean. Incoming Tide, a new exhibition of work by ten artists at JGM Gallery, dives into the story behind this enormous threat to marine wildlife.
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Ghost Net Collective first began to work together in Erub, an island off the tip of Queensland in the Torres Strait. Home to around 400 Indigenous Erubam le, or Erubian people, from four different tribes, the island has a longstanding tradition of seafaring and fishing that has shaped its inhabitants’ lives for centuries. While derelict fishing gear bypasses Erub most of the time, in places where the tidal stream washes up the situation for wildlife and the safety of shorelines can become much more precarious. “The western edge of the Gulf of Carpentaria gets huge amounts of net which drift down from Indonesia,” Griffiths explained in an interview with JGM Gallery.
The artists regularly partner with a plastic retrieval nonprofits or the Australian Navy to source nets from beach-clean operations, and the group’s mission is to illustrate the perilous and damaging effects of plastic waste in oceans. Artists stitch vivid meshes and threads around metal frames into the forms of marine creatures endemic to the Australia coastline like stingrays or sharks.
In Incoming Tide, animals sail together through the space as if riding the same current, buoyant in bright hues and vibrant patterns as they convey an urgent message. “Some countries are still using gillnets,” Griffiths explains. “Those are nets set with radio beacons and they’re baited. They can be kilometres and kilometres long. When they become rogue nets, they just start fishing themselves.” By shaping marine animals from the salvaged materials in motifs resembling coral reefs or schools of fish, the artists hope to shed light on the immense impact of ocean plastics on marine ecosystems and the climate crisis.