Blog

Ghost Net Art: Globally Connected - Plastics in the Marine Environment

By: Dr Scott Mitchell, Category: Science, Date: 04 Dec 2013

Our backyard is all the oceans of the world, and it's filling up with junk.

Just like the cod (garom) and the crab (dauma) together in the keper (shallow pool) we are all connected…
Racy Oui-Pitt, artist, Darnley Island, Torres Strait

All oceans are connected. If you are a piece of plastic or a particle of water you just flow around the oceans as if there are no barriers between them.
Dr Erik Van Sebille, Physical Oceanographer, University of New South Wales

Don’t throw your junk in my backyard,
my backyard, my backyard;
Don’t throw your junk in my backyard,
my backyard’s full!

Children’s song, anon.

It’s a long way between the Darnley Island artist’s centre in Torres Strait and the Climate Change Research Centre at Sydney’s University of New South Wales. Yet the message I took from both is the same: plastic debris such as ghost net is almost indestructible in the marine environment, and it can travel unimaginably long distances in the ocean.

On Darnley Island ghost net is stockpiled outside the art centre ready for making into art (such as the Museum’s new sculptures Dauma and Garom). To a casual observer like me it looks like piles of bleached and sometimes smelly plastic rope. But to Indigenous artists and rangers the net literally tells a story about where it came from.

The thickness and colour of the rope, the size and orientation of the mesh, and the types of objects attached to the net are all clues about not only the type of boat from which it was abandoned, but where it was made. Pieces of net from as far away as the Philippines, Singapore and Indonesia were all pointed out to me in the piles on Darnley Island.

Oceanographers such as Dr Erik van Sebille from the University of New South Wales have a different way of tracking plastic in the marine environment. Using buoys fitted with satellite tracking devices they can monitor the effect of ocean currents on the movement of floating debris such as ghost nets.

As Erik shows us in this film, and on his interactive website, net dumped in SE Asia and the Arafura Sea can travel vast distances from the middle of the Indian Ocean through to Torres Strait and the Gulf of Carpentaria.

As Erik says, “…the ocean is nothing like your bathtub…It's actually a very actively dynamic moving place…”. Because the currents connect all of the oceans, and plastic is expected to last hundreds if not thousands of years in the marine environment, “…a piece of plastic if you throw it in the ocean can end up anywhere”.

Ghost net sculptures such as Dauma and Garom provide an insight into the cultural life of communities in Torres Strait and the artist’s struggle to protect their marine environment. They also represent a challenge to us as individuals, because whether we eat sustainable sea food or toss plastic in a stormwater drain our actions can affect people and the environment thousands of kilometres away.