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Slimed: Ugly Hagfish Yields Somewhat Pretty Income

 
Crewmembers from the F/V First Hope unload hagfish.

Terry Dillman

Crewmembers from the F/V First Hope unload hagfish – otherwise known as slime eels – at the port dock in Newport, Oregon. Vessel owner Frank Button has plied the waters off the Oregon coast for hagfish for the past three years. It’s a wide-open, year-round fishery with an eager market in Korea.

An ugly primitive sea creature is fetching sort of pretty prices for some Oregon fishermen. With an abundantly available resource and willing buyers, a number of fishermen are cashing in on a relatively small, but extremely hungry Asian market, most notably Korea.

By any name, hagfish – also known as slime eels – are not among nature’s beauties. But they play a vital role in the ocean ecosystem as bottom-feeding scavengers, and among folks in Korea, they are prized as edible delicacies and even considered aphrodisiacs. Their hides yield, among other things, eel-skin wallets that patrons can use to shell out the money needed to purchase the eels of their choice from a restaurant’s live tanks in a process similar to selecting live lobsters.

Demand for both flesh and hide exceeds supply, particularly in Korea, where hagfishing is almost nil due to extensive overfishing.

Frank Button, owner of F/V First Hope out of Newport, Oregon, said he has fished for what some call “snot snakes” for the past three years off the Oregon coast, and is currently landing about 7,000 to 18,000 pounds of the live wiggling slimers each trip.

Researchers say hagfish are bottom feeding scavengers that eat other dead and dying sea creatures by burrowing into their carcasses and scarfing up organs and tissue with their tooth-covered tongues. As such, they play a vital role in cleaning the ocean bottom and releasing nutrients into the food web to boost the overall health of the ecosystems they inhabit. By doing so, they also create a rich environment for other species, including commercially important species such as cod, haddock and flounder.

Hagfish are found on the ocean’s mud bottom anywhere from 300 to 600 feet down. To catch the eels, Button and other fishermen use plastic barrels with small holes and trapdoors punctured in them, and baited with rotting fish. Catches are either frozen at sea or brought in fresh for delivery to processing plants or direct live shipments overseas. The handful of existing buyers say prices to fishermen willing to snag the eels currently range from 55 cents per pound for frozen to 90 cents per pound for live critters.

Brad Bailey from Eko Uni Import & Export out of Tacoma, Washington, was at the dock in early January to take Button’s haul for immediate live shipment to Korea. Bailey said although lively, the live market is limited, snatching up only a certain amount of product, while demand for frozen product is greater. One reason is that while live shipments fetch much higher prices, it’s a much more involved process, because live hagfish require a lot of TLC. Done wrong, the death toll can climb and eels that show up DOA are worthless.

“It’s all about the survival rate,” said Bailey. “There’s so much work involved. You have to babysit the darn things.”

Keeping the eels alive for shipment to Korea is no easy task. The prime concern is keeping them from suffocating in their own slime.

Pacific hagfish are blind, eel-like creatures with numerous glands along both sides of their bodies that emit a protein whenever they feel threatened. It reacts with seawater to create huge amounts of tenacious mucous to help them easily slip away. Researchers say a single eel can quickly turn a five-gallon bucket of seawater into a slime pit. Fishermen say removing slime from gear and vessels is difficult, and any lingering presence of it on gear, such as traps and hooks, reduces their catch of other species that shy away from the goop.

After the catch, fishermen and processors stay busy removing slime from hagfish tanks to keep them alive. For shipping, processors pack the eels into containers filled with saltwater and liquid oxygen to keep them breathing and keep the containers cool.

Bailey said it’s still a touchy process, but those with the know-how can deliver the goods alive and well.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife officials say hagfishing began off the Oregon coast in October 1988 with two trap vessels landing a total of 25,729 pounds at Newport. Landings have risen markedly since then, with Oregon fishermen hauling in 1.79 million pounds in 2010, just over 2 million pounds in 2011 and 1.54 million pounds in 2012.

“It remains an open access fishery, with no permits required,” said Troy Buell, state fisheries management program leader for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), which monitors landings, participation and biological data collection. “We improved the information available to manage the hagfish fishery, but there is still a high degree of uncertainty in setting sustainable harvest levels.”

Since the fishery first emerged, ODFW researchers have tried to monitor catch sizes and learn more about hagfish to determine possible future restrictions. The fishery on the Oregon coast remains wide-open for the foreseeable future, even though the fishery is still in the developmental stage, and much about hagfish remains a mystery to scientists. Oregon fishermen have no catch limit, and the fishery is open year-round. The only ODFW requirement is that they keep a log of the fish they bring into port. Agency officials meet with fishermen and exporters every year to assess the fishery. Although some research has been done, ODFW scientists say they have a lot more to learn. ODFW conducted a research project to study West Coast hagfish in 2008-09, but funding ran out before it was finished. The main information that’s missing is some accurate measure of whether the population is increasing, decreasing or staying the same, said Buell.

ODFW researchers rely on fishermen’s logbooks to study the fishery – often a hit-or-miss proposition, as fishermen tend to enter and exit the slime eel fishery quickly.

Catch numbers fluctuate, Buell noted, because there’s “a lot of turnover” of vessels involved in the fishery. “A lot of people try it for a year or two, then get out of it,” Buell added, noting that for many of the commercial fishermen involved, it’s a way to supplement income if another fishery they participate in didn’t do so well in a given year. Still, the hagfishery has grown, Buell noted, especially as processors developed technology to ship them to Korea live.

But the main reason for fluctuations in participation and landings is the market itself. Buell called it “a difficult market.”

The market remains small compared to other fisheries, with low domestic demand because slime eels don’t please palates of people at home.

In the early 1990s, the exported hagfish were used primarily for eel-skin leather, not food. As demand for eel-skin leather dropped, so did West Coast exports. By 2000, overfishing had depleted Korea’s hagfish stocks, so buyers looked elsewhere, including the West Coast. Processors learned that Korean buyers rarely purchased West coast hagfish because they didn’t like the method Oregon processors used to freeze the eels. That changed in 2002, when Mike Erdman of Oregon Sea Green Products in Coos Bay/North Bend decided to do something about it, traveling to Korea to learn their freezing techniques and in the process creating a niche for Oregon, Washington and to some extent California.

Slime eels are also found in Asian restaurants and markets in the United States, and are popular in Japan (often found in sushi bars) and parts of Europe. China is another possible market.

But the big focus is on Korea. It took concentrated marketing efforts by processors like Erdman and the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) backed by promotional funding from the Western United States Agricultural Trade Association to convince key buyers. Those efforts ultimately led one buyer to offer a five-year contract to Oregon Sea Green Products in 2002 to ship out frozen eels.

Live exports began in earnest in 2007. But the market has remained capricious, and it takes a toll on processors and hagfishermen alike.

“It goes in cycles,” said Brad Bailey, noting that “as soon as somebody is successful at getting live hagfish to market,” buyers press others to jump in. Soon the market is flooded or someone fails to provide quality product, and Bailey said, “it leaves a bad taste” in everyone’s mouths, figuratively and literally.

A prime example is Cyclone Marine, whose owners operated a controversial hagfish processing and packing operation in Toledo, Oregon for two years before shutting down in 2011, when city officials revoked the company’s business license after on-going complaints about spills and noise by nearby residents. Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industry officials are still pursuing a judgment against Cyclone Marine’s owners to collect $42,587 in unpaid wages and penalties. In mid-2011, the company resurfaced as Top Blue Marine in Crescent City, California, where they are facing similar complaints about spills, noise, unpaid wages and unpaid balances with local companies for goods and services, according to the Department of Industrial Relations.

Fly-by-night companies notwithstanding, several legitimate processors are doing well with live and frozen exports out of Oregon, Washington and California.

Buell said the frozen market is limited and nearly maxed out, but opportunities still remain in the live market.

Unloading hagfish in Newport, Oregon.

Button said he’s satisfied enough with the market for now to keep going out. As for the “delicacy” he captures, he said it doesn’t taste like chicken. Some say the eels have a texture and flavor similar to clams. Button called it “a firm white meat that tastes like squid.”

Whatever the tastes and texture, he and Bailey know hagfish is in demand in Korea, where restaurant patrons pay as much as $20 per pound to choose and chomp. “It’s not just the flavor, but what it is,” added Bailey, noting that Korean folks have an affinity for the creatures that goes beyond the palate.

Bailey has just one concern.

“Oregon had a limit on permits for a while, but now it’s an open-access fishery,” he said, noting that “no one knows the science” of hagfish. While the slimy eels seem plentiful for the moment, he doesn’t want to see a repeat of Korea’s depletion of homegrown hagfish.

For now, that remains an open question.

 
 
 
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