A zone of plastic as big as an island, maybe even a continent, eddies and accumulates in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and California.

Ocean gyres, and in particular, the one known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, churn plastic from around the Pacific into a soupy deathtrap for ocean creatures. The United Nations has projected that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the sea.

Plastic bags and straws cause countless marine fatalities as their small size, shine and color are an irresistible lure to birds, fish, and turtles. But the most lethal plastic products in the North Pacific are the fishing nets and gear purpose-built to catch and kill marine wildlife. These nets, which can stretch 6 miles in length, comprise about half of the plastic garbage in the Patch. But on Kauai, fishing nets account for almost 90% of marine debris that washes in with the tides.

Artists sensitive to this disaster have started to look at ghost nets and fragments of plastic as raw material for their creativity. Only 10% of plastic on average is recycled. This leaves a tsunami of synthetic waste to pollute our most precious natural places and resources. They hope their work can bring focus to the problem.

Kauai artist Emily Miller is harvesting discarded plastic fish nets for her creations. Courtesy: Emily Miller

Emily Miller transforms the detritus found on Kauai’s shoreline into vibrant, beautiful wall hangings and other products. Her baskets, found in fine galleries here and on the mainland, are a modern, ecological twist on Rumpelstiltskin’s alchemy of spinning straw into gold.

Miller moved to Kauai in 2005 as a teenager and took lessons from Helen Turner, an expert in plein air painting in nature. She eventually moved to Oregon to study art and now imports marine debris for her creative projects.

Ghost Net Landscape is her traveling performance and installation space that encourages community groups to upcycle marine debris into art. In this interactive work she demonstrates basket-making on her sewing machine and invites the audience to participate.

Synthetic materials used in fishing gear is lighter and stronger than it used to be. Fishing fleets dump used nets overboard. These discarded nets, also known as “ghost nets” wreak havoc on marine habitats as small fish get trapped in the nets attracting larger fish that get entangled feeding on them.

Miller says at first she did not know the raw material for art was underfoot all along.

“We knew about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch when we were kids but there was a disconnect to see it on the news and think about what it meant on Kauai,” she says. “I had been making baskets in Oregon and needed material. So I contacted Surfrider Kauai to see if they could send it for Ghost Net Landscape. That was the light bulb moment. The landscape is right here and I had not really seen it.”

Miller discovered this debris is an amazing resource.

“There is so much history with it. You can see the wear and tear from the ocean and how it was used on fishing boats,” she says. “It already has had a collaboration with nature.”

Miller credits Barbara Wiedner, who co-founded the Surfrider Foundation Kauai in 2006, for leadership in creative reuse. Surfrider collects an average of 5 tons of ghost nets and plastic garbage every month from Kauai shores.

Surfrider Foundation Kauai recently joined a ghost gear initiative with the fishing industry to try and address the problem at its source. But she appreciates artists are uniquely able to use the raw material to heighten consciousness.

“We send nets to well-known marine debris artists including Pam Longobardi at Georgia State,” she says. “Pam created a 20 foot anchor that is a beautiful educational tool.”

Monica Mira balances on top of a load of marine debris from a volunteer beach clean up with Surfrider Foundation Kauai. Courtesy: Monica Mira

The need for awareness is stark.

“Whales get tangled in the nets and are even eating it. One whale was found recently with 250 pounds of net in its stomach,” says Wiedner. “And fish eat the plastic as it degrades. People need to think about how to change and purchase items not made of plastic. For example, animals don’t eat glass bottles or aluminum cans. And they can be recycled.”

Monika Mira, with a background in biology, works at the nexus of art, science and activism on Kauai. She was inspired by a show at the Denver Zoo called Washed Ashore, a traveling exhibition of giant sea creatures made of plastic marine debris. It motivated Mira to create something beautiful out of the mountains of fishing nets and ocean garbage piled on island. “If we can capture someone’s attention for long enough with art – we can inspire,” she says.

The Kauai Society of Artists started “Washed Up” – a marine debris art exhibit for pollution awareness. Her jellyfish submission for 2020, a glorious tangle of ghost nets, was four feet in diameter with tentacles that dangled 8 feet, full of rich color, texture and movement.

Mira’s work is found on Splash Trash International, an organization that curates and promotes artists working in the new medium of marine debris. “It is a sister kindred-soul movement,” she says. “I am inspired by other artists.”

Mira, creator of a popular series of marine animal coloring books, has cobbled together small grants to bootstrap workshops and exhibits for the classroom and community. For her, the art’s message is more important than the work itself. And her message is beginning to resonate with kids. “We need to address action when we educate. Talking about it isn’t enough. We take off 5 tons of marine waste every month from our beaches. How can we fix this?”

For a project at Kalaheo Elementary, Mira designed a mural of 4-foot by 16-foot panels of Kauai’s MISO: mountain, island, sky and ocean. The mural’s message is simple: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse and Restore.

Teacher Marley Madayag, 90 schoolchildren, U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono and Surfrider volunteers helped collect shore garbage and sort, clean and separate the raw material by size and color, ready to install.

Mira thinks marine debris art can inspire change – for locals and visitors – and hopes everyone can commit to simple steps. “If you visit can you bring a hydroflask?” she says. “Can you get involved doing a beach clean-up with Surfrider? Do you want to take one of my workshops making wreaths from ghost nets? After COVID there will be opportunities.”

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