Ghost nets become art

croc sculpture
Ghost net crocodile on the beach at Strand Ephemera 2013

What is a Ghost Net?

Ghost nets are fishing nets that have been lost accidentally, deliberately discarded or simply abandoned at sea. They drift with the currents and tides for many years, continuing to catch and kill turtles, sharks, fish and other marine wildlife.

Northern Australia supports an array of marine and coastal species including six of the world’s seven marine turtle species and four sawfish species, many of whose populations have declined elsewhere. Ghost nets are part of vast rafts of marine debris arriving from SE Asia that are fouling this otherwise pristine coastline, mostly owned and occupied by Indigenous peoples of Australia.

Who are GhostNets Australia?

Over the past 10 years Indigenous Rangers from the NT and QLD have been concerned about the many turtles that are entangled in ghost nets and the large number of nets that wash up on the beaches. The Rangers collaborated with other non-government organisations, calling themselves the “saltwater people,” to clean up and monitor ghost nets in the Gulf of Carpentaria. In response to these concerns, GhostNets Australia (initially known as the Carpentaria Ghost Net Programme) was established in 2004.

GhostNets Australia is an alliance of over 22 indigenous communities stretching across Northern Australia from the Torres Strait and the Gulf of Carpentaria to the Kimberleys. Since its establishment, the project has achieved the removal of over 12,000 ghost nets of varying sizes from approximately 2500km of coastline. Less than 10% of them have been attributed to Australian fisheries.

This has resulted in the recovery of a proportion of the trapped wildlife, particularly marine turtles, and the prevention of the ghost nets from returning to the sea where they can continue their destruction.

This project promotes indigenous interests and seeks to assist Aboriginal communities to manage their sea country by building skills and knowledge, assisting in the establishment of institutional frameworks and opening channels of communication between these communities on a scale that has never before been experienced in Australia with a single project.

This multi award winning programme is managed by the Northern Gulf Resource Management Group (NGRMG) with funding from the Australian Government until 2013. The Australian Government funding is matched by stakeholders’ cash and in-kind contributions.

This information on GhostNets Australia is based on their web site and their Facebook page.

So where does the crocodile come from?

I knew Marion Gaemers had had something to do with it but I didn’t really know her role, so I asked her to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. This is her answer:

After initially collecting and burning the nets in the communities, the organisers wondered how they could be used instead of destroyed, so they had a competition to see what people could make from the nets. The winner was a woman who made a guitar strap and her prize was to go to Hammond island and work with the locals on producing items with the net. At that time they mostly made bags.

From there GhostNets Australia employed Sue Ryan as an arts coordinator to find out which communities would like to have people come in and run workshops using the net. Over the five years or so of this project about ten artists have been employed to go into different communities on this basis.

I met Sue when we went to Moa Island and started the project there. Two other artists went after us and did this puppet project. After that I went to Mornington Island with Sue and with Lynnette Griffith (the third artist in the Umbrella Studio exhibition) to Darnley Island. Lynnette is the arts coordinator on Darnley. We wanted to continue to work together and so decided to have an exhibition of our work in Umbrella, “Mesh” in April-May 2013.

Gallery flyer for "Mesh"
Gallery flyer for “Mesh”

For my third trip to Mornington, Lynnette brought the Darnley island artists to work with the Mornington Island artists. From there we were employed by Floating Land Festival on the Sunshine Coast taking Moa and Darnley Islanders with Sue, Lynnette and myself as coordinators. Lynnette and I have also gone to Bamaga.

The crocodile shown at Strand Ephemera was made in Cairns, at CIAF (Cairns Indigenous Art Fair) 2011 with artists coordinating indigenous people and visitors to the fair to complete it. Ghost Nets Australia also did drop-in workshops at Strand Ephemera where they coordinated visitors to the strand to help make a large sea turtle.

croc sculpture close-up
Deadly no more

• A slightly shorter version of this post appeared in Waves, newsletter of the Reef HQ Volunteers Association, February 2014 issue.


We don’t usually think of sharks amongst the natural world’s great lovers but perhaps we’re being unfair.

Leopard sharks
Love bites: Leopard sharks in Reef HQ

I have been a volunteer at Reef HQ Aquarium for a couple of years now, and I have gradually been getting into the habit of taking my camera in with me. A little while ago I spotted the female Leopard shark, Leonie, lying back in what looks like bliss while the male, Leo, nibbled her fins amorously.

It is typical courtship behaviour for the species (and it must work well for this couple because they have produced several offspring for Reef HQ) but I do find the parallels with human behaviour amusing and thought-provoking. One recent thought is that we usually say ‘how like people’ animals are when they behave like we do, but that way of putting it is really back to front: people evolved from lower animals, not the other way round, so it’s very likely some of our behaviour patterns, as well as our genes, are inherited from them.

So next time you spot a couple of teenagers kissing and cuddling you might think, ‘How like sharks they are!’

P.S. Crocs do it too: I didn’t know how romantic crocodiles were until I came across this description recently.

Billabong: reptiles

Still at Billabong Sanctuary

Girls with snakes around their shoulders
Relaxed attitude: Woma (left) and Boa

There is a sequence of talks and shows through the day – birds, koalas, (small) reptiles, dingos and so on, culminating in the largest reptiles. The snakes and lizards show was entertaining, as well as informative, partly because of the visitors’ responses.

‘Does anyone want to put this Woma around their neck?’ Response: trepidation.

‘What about this Boa Constrictor?’ Response: consternation.

But the relaxed attitude of the staff holding the snakes did reassure the visitors, and quite a few were confident enough to step forward.

Visitors were not, however, invited to step forward and handle the snappy logs. The crocodiles were quite lethargic because of the cool weather but still not to be taken lightly. Both of our Australian species were presented:

  • The Freshwater Crocodile (Crocodylus johnstoni) can grow to about 3 m in length but are usually 1.5 – 2 m. They are primarily fish-eaters, though they will also take insects, amphibians and small mammals; they are unaggressive and are considered harmless to people.
  • The Saltwater Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) is quite a different proposition. The world’s largest living reptile, it can grow to at least 7 m and 1300 kg, and large individuals can tackle prey up to the size of a water buffalo. There are very few fatal attacks on people but staying well away from them is strongly recommended!

The first of these two pictures shows one of the Sanctuary’s larger salties; the second shows a considerably smaller animal.

Saltwater Croc - frontal view
Ranger feeding a Saltwater croc
Do not try this at home!

More on crocs: Wikipedia has good articles on both salties and freshies.