There’s a name for the abandoned fishing tackle that washes up on beaches around the world. It’s called “ghost gear” and it’s an environmental disaster. Each year an estimated 640,000 tonnes of the stuff is dumped overboard or lost at sea where it goes on “ghost fishing”, destroying habitats and ensnaring wildlife.
Artist and basketmaker Lois Walpole has a “love hate relationship” with the gear. She abhors the damage it causes, but, while most people view the mounds of nets and orphaned wellingtons left by the tide as useless, unsightly rubbish, she sees their potential.
“They’re in such good condition,” she says, over the phone from her house on the island of Yell in Shetland, where vast quantities of the gear ends up, carried by the gulf stream. “They’re perfect to work with and I do think more people could use them. Up here you don’t need to go and buy yourself any string or rope you can get it off the beach. There’s a mindset that because it’s washed up it’s rubbish, which is strange because prior to ferries everyone in Shetland relied on the beaches for materials. I find it sad that that attitude has been lost.”
Walpole’s work demonstrates the extent to which this flotsam and jetsam can be transformed. Her latest exhibition, Weaving Ghosts at the Shetland Museum and Archives in Lerwick, features brightly coloured baskets topped with fishing buoys, woven slippers and abstract wall friezes made from tangles of polypropylene rope.
The title of the exhibition refers not just to the gear, but to other ghosts as well. There are the ghosts of Walpole’s family, including her resourceful great grandfather, Laurence Moar Tulloch, a crofter and fisherman from Yell who managed to feed 15 hungry mouths and whose photograph Walpole kept in her studio as she worked. Then there are the ghosts of Shetland’s basket making tradition which, like many such traditions around the world, has all but disappeared over the course of the last half century, with the onset of modernity.
“It was lost very very quickly post war and with the oil boom here,” Walpole says. “It was something that men did, and when fishing became commercial they didn’t need baskets like the old folk did with their rowing boats. You can’t go and interview anyone now who used to make baskets on the croft up here. There’s really nobody left.”