Slimed: Ugly Hagfish Yields Somewhat Pretty Income

By Terry Dillman

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
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.
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.