Meet the Aboriginal Community Turning Abandoned Fishing Gear into Art

On Australia’s Cape York Peninsula, artists weave deadly “ghost nets” into totems.

July 21, 2017

David Varga

Fishing nets will keep catching things even when there’s no one there to haul them in. These “ghost nets” are a ubiquitous form of pollution in today’s oceans, where they ensnare and kill marine life such as sea turtles, dolphins, and sharks. On the western shores of Australia’s Cape York Peninsula, these nets, abandoned by commercial fishing vessels, are washing up by the dozens and making life difficult for the people of Pormpuraaw, an aboriginal community that has relied on the sea’s bounty for thousands of years.

“It’s a particularly vile form of pollution,” says Paul Jakubowski, an American artist who manages the Pormpuraaw Art & Culture Centre. As a way to raise awareness of the problem, Jakubowski’s organization has been helping local artists turn this trash into treasure for the past eight years. They comb the beach for these washed-up death traps and then expertly craft them into sculptures of the very same sea creatures that lose their lives to them.

David Varga

To create the larger-than-life crabs, jellyfish, and turtles, the artists start with a base of recycled metal and adapt their traditional weaving practices to incorporate the ghost nets. “Their ability to transpose this skill onto totemic forms based on recycled materials is not just a culturally sustaining practice but also a powerful technique for raising awareness of the environmental impact of this sort of marine pollution,” says Australian filmmaker David Varga, whose short video on the Pormpuraaw community’s collective project, below, features interviews with artists like Sid Bruce Short Joe and Steven Kepper.

Such awareness is sorely needed. Mission Blue, an ocean-preservation organization founded by oceanographer Sylvia Earle, counts ghost nets among the greatest killers in our oceans. Discarded, lost, and abandoned fishing gear accounts for around 10 percent of all marine litter, according to a 2009 United Nations report.

The sculptures have also become an important export for a community that, like many aboriginal towns, struggles with job opportunities. As the artwork travels to exhibits around Australia and the world, awareness of both the ecological toll of ghost nets and the story of Pormpuraaw’s aboriginal community travels with it. “Nonindigenous Australia needs to do more to learn about our First Australians, to respect their status as custodians of the oldest continuous cultures on earth,” Varga says.

David Varga

One collection of their sculptures recently had a run at the United Nations headquarters in New York before heading to the University of Virginia’s Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection, the only museum in the United States dedicated to Australian aboriginal art. Across the (net-filled) ocean, other Pormpuraaw displays are swimming through the Paris Aquarium and Geneva’s Museum of Ethnography.

New technologies, financial incentives, and improved recycling all have the potential to tackle the problem of ghost gear. But until those efforts become widespread, Pormpuraaw artists are fighting back with art. As Jakubowski says, “Something terrible becomes something beautiful.”

David Varga


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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