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.
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.
in Korea, where hagfishing is almost nil due to extensive overfishing.
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.
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.
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.
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
much work involved. You have to babysit the darn things.”
task. The prime concern is keeping them from suffocating in their own slime.
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.
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.
know-how can deliver the goods alive and well.
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.
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.”
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.
fishery – often a hit-or-miss proposition, as fishermen tend to enter and exit
the slime eel fishery quickly.
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.
landings is the market itself. Buell called it “a difficult market.”
low domestic demand because slime eels don’t please palates of people at home.
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
in the United States, and are popular in Japan (often found in sushi bars) and
parts of Europe. China is another possible market.
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.
remained capricious, and it takes a toll on processors and hagfishermen alike.
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.
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.
processors are doing well with live and frozen exports out of Oregon,
Washington and California.
out, but opportunities still remain in the live market.
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.”
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
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.