Far North Queensland collective gives new life to ghost nets with Sydney eagle ray installations

Standing around a giant eagle beam made from discarded fishing nets, four artists meticulously hand-sew and add colorful embellishments.

Abandoned by commercial fishing boats at sea, these ghost nets would drift aimlessly along the ocean floor, silently trapping and killing marine life.

But they have found new life through art designed to highlight their shattered heritage.

At Lynnette Griffith’s garage in the northern beaches of Cairns, members of the Ghost Net Collective put the finishing touches to the 2.8-meter-high creature, the last in their group.

3 artists standing next to a piece of art made from ghost nets
One of 11 giant ghost rays, each about 2.8 meters long.(Supplied: Kieran James)

They sit around their “sewing circle”, sharing songs and stories while working fingers occupied with needles and thin rope.

“The rays will appear to be moving in space and will become electrified with LED lighting at night, creating an immersive experience,” Griffiths says.

Ms. Griffiths co-founded Ghost Net Collective in 2020 and is the project manager and lead artist on this project – one of Australia’s largest handmade sustainable public art commissions.

Called Mermer Waiskeder, and meaning Stories of the Moving Tide, the installation sponsored by Nina Miall is bound for Sydney’s Exchange Square in Barangaroo South.

Image of a floating art installation composed of eagle rays made from ghost nets inside a large building
A preview of what the art installation would look like at Sydney’s Exchange Square in Barangaroo South.(Supplied: Lendlease)

Once installed early next year, 11 giant ghost beams – each weighing 85 kilograms – will safely float above crowds to create the effect of an underwater aquarium.

It is part of Barangaroo’s $40 million Public Art and Culture Contribution and reflects Barangaroo’s early history of fishing, paying tribute to the mooring grounds that were once the site of a rope mill.

“The reason we collectively decided on rays is because it is a familiar sight across Australia and people can relate to it,” Griffiths says.

Two artists standing in front of some giant eagle rays packed into a storage container behind them
Ghost Net Collective artists Lynnette Griffiths and Jimmy John Thaiday with giant beam pieces made from nets behind them.(ABC Far North: Amanda Cranston)

Jimmy John Thaiday, an artist from Erub (Darnley Island) in Torres Strait, explains that each of the eleven eagle rays has its own different names and patterns.

“We sintered and created patterns like circles, flowers and fish, which give the rays life and a spectacle of what is happening in the water,” he says.

Thiday says they have acquired most of the ghost nets from Tangaroa Blue, a non-profit organization that collects marine debris from beaches across Australia.

Men lift ropes on the beach as ropes stretch out on the sand at Erup (Darnley Island) on the Torres Strait
Ropes tied to discarded fishing nets are wound on Erup Beach (Darnley Island) in the Torres Strait.(Supplied: Lynette Griffith)

Other nets from the Sydney Fish Market have been salvaged, providing a local connection to the project.

Once the ghost nets were cleaned and dried, the artists used two or three layers to create each giant beam, giving it depth and strength.

Thayde says it took about six weeks to complete each animal, with the help of local school students.

“I loved this project and it was really good doing the workshops and working with all the ladies,” he says.

Artist standing in water with ghost net beam
Artist with a ghost net floating in the water in the Torres Strait.(Supplied: Lynette Griffith)

An estimated 12 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean each year, including 640,000 tons of ghost gear, according to Greenpeace.

“We hope that our use of recycled ghost nets will lead to discussions about how these neglected invisible nets kill not only fish, but turtles, sharks, and much of our marine life,” Griffiths says.

Old lady with short gray hair, wearing glasses and a colored blouse
Diane Lowe is the director of Erub Arts at Torres Strait.(Supplied: Kieran James)

Diane Lowe, director of Erub Arts on Darnley Island in the Torres Strait, says she hopes the show’s sarcasm isn’t lost on audiences.

“We’ve reused pollution, the very substance that kills our life in the ocean and makes something sublime and beautiful,” she says.

“Through this work, people will know more about us and better understand our environmental message about marine pollution.”

The topic behind the title – Stories about Tidal Movement – suggests that time and tides don’t wait for anyone and wonders if time is running out for humans.

It also explains that while the coming tide brings with it debris, it also symbolizes a new beginning.

“To add the finishing touches to our final beam, #11, is almost indescribable and so emotional because we all put our hearts and souls into this project,” Lowe says.

“That’s what art is all about – starting the conversation.”

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