During college, Christine Ren went scuba diving in Honduras, and during that underwater moment, her life changed. Looking at the beautiful world around her, she knew she wanted to make sure that it wasn't going to be decimated during her lifetime. "I believe there's a calling on each of our lives, and those months in Honduras made mine clear," Ren told MNN.
Combining her skills as a dancer and an ocean conservationist, Ren is tackling one of the most pressing — and addressable — issues affecting oceans worldwide: so-called "ghost nets." These nets are discarded or lost by fishermen who don't want to haul the heavy plastic nets back to land after they've caught their quotas. So the giant nets go over the sides of boats and into the sea where they float around, catching and killing all kinds of animals, from sea turtles to fish, crustaceans, and more. And once a few fish are caught in the nets and die, the nets attract more fish looking for a meal, creating a horrible cycle of destruction, threatening already overfished and stressed fish communities.
That's not all. "They also destroy hard and soft corals, wiping out complete ecosystems while swaying in the current," according to Mission Blue, a foundation created by Sylvia Earle, who has called them "one of the biggest killers in our oceans."
A long-term problem
This isn't just a few wayward nets — there are thousands of them, and they can float around for decades or even longer. They're made from a very strong plastic that can stick around and take a lot of abuse — meaning a net discarded today could be "ghost fishing" when your grandchildren are contemplating retirement.
Ren's awareness campaign (described in the video above) was shot in collaboration with Jose G. Cano in Nelson, New Zealand — just one member of a rich team described at the bottom of this post. Her goal is to "... drive traffic to our solution partners that are fostering net buyback programs — training and paying fisherman to reclaim derelict gear and regenerate the nylon waste into sustainable products."
The buyback program is a win-win-win, for the ocean and its animals, for the fishermen, and for companies looking to make useful things out of recycled plastics. How this beautiful film project came to be from such a horrendous problem is best explained by Ren herself.
MNN: How did you come up with the idea for your project?
Christine Ren: My work embodies the idea that ocean conservation is a human issue. So I use my body and movement as a canvas for these issues, and draw on my background in dance for body positioning and conveying emotion. I use this idea as a base framework and from there typically find starting points by looking at ocean conservation issues, whether global or localized to a specific area — searching for messaging gaps, what needs attention and hasn't been conveyed in an engaging way.
From there, I know no other way to describe it then as a chaotic leap of faith off a cliff as I hurdle myself into various creative wormholes — viewing things from the lens of scientist, then dancer, then filmmaker and on and on.
Fitting the final messages into the boxes I've created for them — something press-worthy, that will resonate with the public and be shared, yet stay true to the science, that will have a clear call-to-action and be informative plus informational — is a bit of a check-off-the-box nightmare, but it's a fulfilling challenge for sure.
What's your creative process like?
Everyone's creative process is different, but for me, it requires a lot of solitude and quiet. I gather raw materials in terms of inspiration at every turn in the world — from a conversation with a scientist, watching a new environmental film, reading research and even just watching the ocean. Then the ideas seem to all synthesize somehow on their own accord — when I'm deep in meditation, or in a dream.
In terms of artistic execution, my backgrounds in dance, media and ocean conservation have always been a dream to pursue less separately. Through much testing, failing and testing again, I have finally started to create the initial stages of a powerful body of underwater images that convey ocean conservation themes. I think without hope, we are truly lost. So I do my best to listen and observe the world as it currently is, while holding a clear vision of and deep commitment to the world I wish for us to create. It's not easy.
For “Silent Killers” specifically, it followed the protocol I've described above and came about through collaborative discussions with the photographer, Jose G. Cano. We started with ocean issues that we both were very passionate about, and then conceptualized within the time, location, and cost constraints we had in which to create.
What is your personal connection with ocean life — where did it come from or how did it develop?
I grew up in the rural backwoods of Pennsylvania, and my summers were filled with adventures to rivers, lakes, the pool and the seaside. From an early age, I was drawn to the water. I was always the first in and the last out. Fast forward many years to busy school life and pursuing a career in New York as a dancer, I became extremely disconnected from the natural world, and I felt it in my soul — this deep aching emptiness, and a sense that something was missing.
My connection to the ocean was always there, but it solidified into a career and lifelong mission when I transferred to Goucher College to pursue dance and biology in a beautifully wooded setting in Towson, Maryland. I had the encouragement and funding from this small liberal arts school to do a Tropical Marine Ecology course in Honduras. It was my first time scuba diving and I felt completely blown open by the mystery and otherworldliness of the underwater realm. I simply couldn't fathom, or stand, the idea that all of what I was seeing and coming to love about these ecosystems could be completely gone in 50 years —i n my lifetime.
Getting to the practicalities of your program: How do the buyback programs work? How much do the fishermen get for the nets and who organizes the recycling?
At a broad level, each net-buyback program is different, but most operate on the premise to incentivize fishermen to reclaim lost gear and/or not dispose of it in the ocean in the first place. Throwing old nets overboard is convenient and easy. But net-buyback programs can offer training, education and financial incentives to the fisherman to pay for their old gear and then repurpose it into everything from fabric and textiles to renewable energy. ECONYL is a leading company that the programs send the reclaimed ghostgear back to for recycling.
My partner for the "Silent Killers" campaign, Global Ghost Gear Initiative, has a solution map that features many of the initiatives and businesses across the world working to combat and solve ghost fishing at its source. Please visit them here.
How do you deal with the large challenges that come with making our oceans healthy again?
I've never given up on the idea that I can make a difference — despite financial and health challenges. The world we live in is not an easy one to figure out how to both make an impact, and make ends meet. It requires a lot of thinking outside the box and moving in ways outside of society's norms. It's a wild and reckless life, but it's mine and the one I fought for. And I know I'll have no regrets in the end.
- Art direction and editing: Christine Ren
- Photography: Jose G. Cano
- Underwater models: Christine Ren, Emma Porteous, Moana Mink
- Hair & MUA: Kungy Gay Cano
- BTS footage: Brad Watts
- Assistant: Caroline Trembat