community art & marine debris

'The Young Man and The Ghost Net'. A community art project on Moa Island, Australia.

Its 2010, and St Pauls community on Moa Island (Australia) celebrates the first puppet show of its kind in the Torres Strait ... and the first puppet show ever made out of ghost nets and marine debris! Materials were collected locally, and puppets were woven together in community workshops with the Arts Centre, the school, church groups and the wider community

The story was told using a shadow puppet screen, narration, live music and full choir. The audience sang and wept their way through the story of a young fisherman's encounters with ghost nets, performed by around 65 local musicians, singers and puppeteers of all ages. This project was so unique that Ghost Nets Australia produced this film. It features interviews with local artists, preparation of the artworks and the final performance. All of the photos, text and videos are from the GhostNets Australia website.

The film: 'The Young Man and The Ghost Net'

The background

The problem

In Australia, ghost nets (discarded or abandoned fishing nets) are devastating our endangered marine life. This is particularly the case in Australia’s far north in the Gulf of Carpentaria: one of the last remaining safe havens for endangered marine and coastal species, including six of the world’s seven marine turtle species, dugongs and sawfish. Sadly turtles make up 80 percent of the marine life found caught in the nets. The ghost net issue is an international one: 90% of the marine debris entering the Australia is from South East Asian fishers. 

Rangers in Australia have removed more than 13,000 nets from our beaches and estuaries. In the past, the rangers would either burn or dump tonnes upon tonnes of ghost nets. They were seen as useless rubbish ....

The organisation

GhostNets Australia is an alliance of Indigenous communities stretching along 3000kms of coastline in the Gulf of Carpentaria, and operated under a simple philosophy: saltwater people working together.

GhostNets Australia has already facilitated the rescue of over 300 entrapped turtles and removal of 13,000 nets from our beaches and estuaries.

The opportunity

One person's trash is another's artistic treasure! 

GhostNets Australia created the GhostNets Art Program to raise public awareness on the issue of marine debris, and to empower Indigenous communities to help with the solution. The program takes marine debris and turns it into artworks using traditional weaving techniques.

The method: community art projects

How did they share their story?

Performing a story about the effects of ghost nets, using shadow puppets and sculptures made of marine debris.

The performance was filmed, edited and recorded on a DVD. The film has been played at workshops and film festivals far and wide, from Australia to Asia, from France to the USA.  As Sue Ryan says: "We've certainly got a lot of mileage out of it [the film]; it's amazing how much life it's had!” 


Artists Karen Hethey and Ilka White spent four weeks on Moa, at St Pauls community, drawing together peoples real life experiences of seeing the damage ghost nets do to sea creatures: to turtles, dugongs, coral reef and mangroves. See more information below.

What difference has it made?

GhostNets Australia sponsored more than 20 ghost net art workshops over four years, starting in Aurukun in 2009. Locations were as widespread as Darnley Island in the east and South Goulburn Island, NT, in the west. As a result of these workshops indigenous ghost net art began appearing in galleries and art fairs around Australia. 

On Moa Island, after the performance, St Pauls community members said they were “deeply touched” and believed that with such powerful storytelling GhostNets Australia could influence and inform people all around the world. The film above has since been translated into Korean, Indonesian and French for showing in those countries.

The impact of the puppets will live on. Artists from St Pauls community said they were inspired to continue puppet construction on Moa Island, raising awareness and continuing the Ghost Net art explosion across the Torres Strait.

Tips running community art projects on with marine debris

These suggestions were gathered from conversations with Sue Ryan: image maker, storyteller and architect of the Ghost Net Art Project


  • Start with the basics: work with a community who is interested in doing a marine debris art project. 
  • Get local schools, rangers and community groups involved. 
  • Gather the ghost nets and marine debris from the local area, with community members. Record this process with photos and film. You could also work with Tangaroa Blue to gather important data on what you’ve found. You can then sort the material into colours or debris types. 
  • Bring more marine debris material than you need, so that people can see the scale of problem. 
  • Collect all different types of debris (e.g. nets, bottles, thongs, micro-plastics); again, even if you don’t use them, this shows the variety of marine debris in the ocean.  
  • Bring it all together. Bring pliers, wire, pop-rivets, any tools to make the sculpture. 
  • If you have limited time, pre-build the frame of the large sculpture before the workshop starts.

The art project: 

  • It’s important to do a large collaborative sculpture (with someone leading the creation of the large piece, so that it is not, in Sue's words "a complete hodgepodge!"), AND to also allow people to just make something small for themselves. 
  • Promote creative freedom – do not be prescriptive about what you make. Let this come from the community. As Sue says,“there isn’t one way”. That said, people react well to an artwork with a positive message: it’s more effective to make a beautiful shark or turtle, rather than something gory (e.g. a seal with plastic around its neck). Sue reflects that: “If you come with a positive message, people are more inclined to be part of the project and ask more questions. Making beautiful things out of horrible dangerous materials: that was something that struck the public.” 
  • Take lots of photos of the process! 

The place 

  • It’s important to think about where you will make the artwork: you want to bring people together in a welcoming, non-threatening environment. As Sue says: “The space itself makes a difference - we worked really well when we were outside – we throw down large mats and have all the gear around.” Ghost Nets Art Projects are, where possible, set up outside under a shady tree, in a communal area. Materials are placed on big plastic mats. People can sit down or sit at a big shared table. 
  • The environment is always open, and welcoming, with a focus on sharing. As Sue says, “Sometimes we artists can be insular: but weaving and working with the net allows for people to work together and figure out new ways of making the artwork, while still developing their own style.” 
  • Allow people to come and go as they please.
  • Always give people credit for the work that they have made.
  • Make it fun! 

The conservation message

  • Have lots of information around about the environmental issue of ghost nets. When running workshops and community art projects, Ghost Nets Australia will put up canvas banners around the art-making space (when outside, attach the banners to trees!), and has smaller flyers that people can take with them.
  • Have a computer (or a projector, if possible) playing films about marine debris.      

The people 

  • Collaboration is incredibly important. Bring people together: combine contemporary artists with local artists and craftspeople. According to Sue Ryan, these “different artforms open up so many different possibilities … it allows people to be creative, and different people can always find common ground.” 
  • If you are looking to make a large collaborative piece (that can be shown in public collections or exhibitions), it's useful to have at least two artist facilitators for two weeks. For the larger pieces, "having experienced fibre artists facilitating workshops in remote communities was the key to encouraging local artisans to take up the medium", says Sue. 
  • Sue stresses to, "Make it as open as possible ...  kids, older people, anyone can join if they want to!"

The performance

  • You can have a community performance, to show off the artworks you’ve made.
  • This is also a chance to tie in the conservation message.
  • The St Pauls community loves singing and music, so this was incorporated into the shadow puppet show, along with a local story about ghost nets. You could include dance or theatre … whatever works! 
  • Film the performance! Visual Obsession was hired to professionally film and edit the St Pauls performance (see film above). (Be sure to get ask permission, where relevant.)
  • Take lots of photos! Promote the performance through newspapers, radio and other media.

Beyond the workshop

  • Think creatively about how you can use the artworks after the workshop. They could be used by the school, or they could be part of a travelling art tour.
  • Write or coordinate follow-up stories with newspapers/ radio/ etc. Be sure to include information on marine debris and pollution, and practical steps on what individuals can do.  
  • This is where the film can shine: it allows the community’s art project to have a life well beyond the workshop. Sue Ryan says that the Moa shadow puppet film "has gone everywhere: it's been around Australia, the United States, Brazil, Hong Kong, and France. It's gone all over the place. It's been such a great thing to do. We've certainly got a lot of mileage out of it. It's amazing how much life it's had!” 

Helpful links and contacts

Ghost Nets Australia