Fishermen hook overseas hagfish market
A Premium Pacific Seafoods crew in Port Orford empties slime eels into a bag in a bucket. Processors grade the eels according to size before freezing them. The eels eventually will be sold overseas. - World Photo by Susan Chambers

PORT ORFORD -- If slime eels could rate a "gross factor," they would be way off any scale.

Hagfish, as they're also called, are not for the squeamish. Each 2-foot-long eel has a series of glands running down the sides of its body, and every hour, it can produce a gallon -- yep, one whole gallon -- of sticky, slimy goo that can suffocate a fish unwise enough to eat it.

Slime eels tie themselves in knots to scrape the slime from their bodies or to escape a predator and sneeze to clear the goo from their nostrils.

Understandably enough, they're also not a favorite menu item unless they're prepared at a Korean restaurant.

"I haven't tried any yet," said Premium Pacific Seafoods owner Mark Barnes, who processes the eels for export, "but I haven't heard any bad reports."

Barnes has a crew of about a dozen people processing them at the Port Orford plant to sell to Korea. Premium Pacific was ready to ship its second container full of eels in May until a breakdown at the port's dock slowed production. Barnes buys from a few fishermen, one of whom is Dave Rickel, owner of the F/V Playboy.

Rickel's skipper, Joel Purkey, takes another crewman and ventures offshore, dropping modified 5-gallon buckets into the ocean to trap the eels. They bring back almost 3,000 pounds of eels a day … plus the slime.

"Every time you touch (the eels) or move them, they don't like it and they produce more slime," Barnes said.

Ugliness aside, the pinkish-gray hagfish is an evolutionary success story and provides a much-needed function in the ocean. It's changed little over the 300-500 million years it's been around. Like lampreys, slime eels are scavengers, feeding on the dead or almost-dead fish and worms on the ocean floor. They produce the slime for protection and have no hard bones in their bodies. They have no fins, no teeth and are almost blind. To eat, two rasps on their tongues tear into their prey. Eight small tentacles around their mouths give them a developed sense of smell and touch.

To some fishermen, they're a nuisance -- and it's really ugly what they can do to a black cod.

"Within an hour, they can eat a fish like that inside out," said Rickel, who also fished for black cod. "It doesn't matter if it's a 5-pound fish or a 10-pound fish."

The eels enter through any orifice and devour their victims from the inside out.

But for Rickel and Barnes, finding the hagfish is like finding a personal treasure trove in an industry that dictates diversity is the only way to survive. Fishermen get 25 cents a pound for the eels.

"We've got to be able to do everything possible to survive," said Barnes.

A combination of lower groundfish limits and cyclical changes in other fisheries have forced Barnes to adapt.

"I wasn't even receptive to this," Barnes said, "but it was an opportunity. I better not pass it up."

Barnes' processing crew cleans off the slime, grades the eels by size, puts them in bags, freezes them, boxes them and stores them until there are enough to fill a container.

Koreans like the eels, consuming nearly 5 million pounds of meat a year. The skins can be tanned and turned into leather products such as wallets and boots and then sold at high prices in stores like Macy's.

Pacific hagfish live on muddy bottoms from Baja California to southeast Alaska and on the East Coast from Newfoundland to the Carolinas. They also like deep water -- some fishermen have found them at between 500 and 800 feet.

Oregon's history with slime eels is sporadic. Rickel and other fishermen caught slime eels almost 15 years ago, when the prices were closer to 35 cents a pound. Between 1988 and 1993, the biggest year was in 1992, when 751,000 pounds were landed. In 1999, Oregon fishermen landed 664,000 pounds; 140,654 pounds have been landed through April this year. New England fishermen also pursued a slime eel fishery in the early 1990s, following the closure of some George's Bank fisheries. A group of University of New Hampshire researchers is studying the creatures in hopes of developing a sustainable fishery on the East Coast.

Jean McCrae, fisheries biologist at the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, said between seven and a dozen permits have been issued annually in the past. This year, however, there is more interest as more fishermen try to diversify in order to maintain an income. All 25 developmental fisheries permits have been issued, a number of them to boat owners in Port Orford. Barnes plans to upgrade his operation soon.

One can only imagine the tourist slogan: "Port Orford, population 1,025 and home to a quaint harbor and hagfish."

(Staff Writer Susan Chambers covers fishing issues for The World. She can be reached at 269-1222, ext. 273.)

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