CHARLESTON — Hagfish feed on dead and dying sea creatures by burrowing into their carcasses and licking away organs and tissue with tooth-covered tongues.

Scientists know little about the prehistoric creature. But the blind, 17-inch-long invertebrates that live on the ocean floor are a delicacy in Korean cuisine.

In the early 2000s, overfishing had seriously depleted the Korean hagfish stock, so processors began looking for markets elsewhere in the world, including New England, British Columbia and the West Coast.

Charleston became Oregon’s leading exporter of hagfish, also known as slime eels.

Korea doesn’t have homegrown hagfish, said Sammy Cho, a Korea-born fish processor who exports live hagfish to South Korea from the South Coast.

“They caught them all, already,” he added with a laugh.

West Coast hagfish were initially shipped frozen, but new technology has enabled processors to keep the eels alive on their journey to Korea, making the animal worth more.

“The consumption is a lot for live eels,” said Cho, owner of Koson Enterprises in Charleston. “They mainly enjoy live.”

The market is still small compared with other local fisheries, and there is no domestic demand for the slime eel, which does not jive with western palates. But processors and fishermen hope exports will continue to increase as new Asian markets are explored.

“I found them here and decided to stay here,” Cho said. “These live eels,” Cho pointed at a row of 800 gallon tubs full of squirmy eels, “they keep me here.”

How they’re caught

Fishermen catch hagfish in baited barrels with small holes cut along the sides. Hagfish live on the ocean floor between 300 and 600 feet.

Keeping the eels alive during transport to Korea is quite the feat.

Slime eels earned their name because of their slimy defense mechanism. When threatened, the hagfish produces large quantities of slime as a shield that enables them to easily slip away.

Once caught, processors have to constantly remove slime from the hagfish tanks by hand to keep their catch alive. Cho’s processing plant takes salt water from the bay to change the water in the tanks during high tide. The bay’s water at low tide does not have high enough salinity to keep the eels alive.

When it comes time to ship, the eels are packed into Styrofoam containers, filled with saltwater and liquid oxygen. The oxygen will allow them to keep breathing, while keeping the container cool.

By the time the ship arrives in Korea, the eels have warmed back up.

A market dead or alive

Cho did not start out exporting live eels. When he arrived in Charleston, one fish processor already exported frozen hagfish to Korea.

Mike Erdman, owner of Oregon Seagreen Products, carved out a market for hagfish exports on the South Coast more than a decade ago.

When Erdman started, Koreans rarely bought West Coast hagfish because the they disliked Oregon’s method of freezing the fish.

So, Erdman traveled to Korea to learn their freezing techniques.

“I was basically the first in Oregon,” Erdman said.

Live-shipping cropped up around 2007, but Erdman still ships frozen.

“You get more money by shipping live, but there is a lot more involved in keeping them alive,” Erdman said. “The death toll is high, and they are not any good if they die.”

The price for live hagfish has hovered around 70 cents per pound, whereas frozen sells for around 50 cents a pound.

What’s next?

In the early 1990s, eel-skin leather was a popular item in Korea, so the first hagfish exported from the West Coast to Korea became purses and boots, not food.

Eel-skin leather’s popularity cooled in the mid-1990s and so did West Coast hagfish exports.

“Maybe a decade or so ago, we started seeing landings coming back in,” said Troy Buell, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife state fisheries management program leader. “They have been trending upward that entire time.”

The West Coast may increase its hagfish exports by exploring markets in Japan and China, Buell said. In the meantime, scientists will continue to study the animal and assess the local fishery.

“There’s not a really big market,” Erdman said. “It may someday develop into a bigger market.”

Reporter Jessie Higgins can be reached at 541-269-1222, ext. 240, or jhiggins@theworldlink.com.

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